I recently watched the Academy Award-winning documentary Icarus, which barely allows me to check the “timely” box needed to write a blog post I wanted to write anyway, but needed a higher click potential to justify.
The story begins with its auteur, cyclist Bryan Fogel, attempting to dope his way to the front of the pack in an amateur bicycle race. He claims the sole purpose of this exercise is to prove he can complete the race without getting caught using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), for which he enlists the help of anti-doping’s leading minds to help him evade detection.
His first call is to anti-doping pioneer Don Catlin, founder of the first anti-doping lab in the United States. Catlin, while sounding somewhat defeated about the efficacy of anti-doping programs in achieving their goals, nonetheless remains committed to trying and refuses to participate in Fogel’s caper.
That said, he does know a guy.
The guy in this case is one Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, something of a Russian Counterpart to Catlin who, in what originally appears to be the biggest coincidence ever, is currently being swept up in an investigation into a possible state-sponsored doping program for Russian athletes. Rodchenkov agrees to help Fogel, either because he’s addicted to helping people cheat and wants to stay in practice while he’s suspended or, more likely, because Fogel has offered him some sort of a way out of his predicament in return for documentary gold and some piss smuggling.
Ultimately, Fogel’s performance actually worsens over his previous run of the Haute Route, the facilitators of which don’t even end up testing him. Fortunately for Fogel, the investigation descending upon the doctor begins to yield a much bigger prize.
The next part of the story would become well-known to the public months before Icarus was available to stream. Rodchenkov, confirming what had been alleged by German documentations years before, provides the New York Times with evidence of a state-sponsored program to help Russian Athletes use PED’s in international competition without getting flagged by the country’s anti-doping organization. He knew this, he alleges, because he helped design the program.
It’s easy to look at this discovery and marvel at its absurdity: A world power using its resources to help athletes win a nationalist pissing contest (heh). But what's more absurd is how anyone can pretend to give a shit.
The principal arguments I hear against PEDs involve them making competition unfair, endangering the health of athletes, or otherwise compromising the integrity of the sport being played. But I can’t imagine how anyone can look at corporate sports and put any kind of drug use at the top of their list of ethical priorities.
Tens of thousands of people were displaced in Rio de Janeiro to make room for the 2016 Olympics. Even more were evicted for the 2014 World Cup before them. But apparently everyone’s vitriol is reserved for Russia when they dared to cheat at sports(!) , instead of the International Olympic Committee when they convince local officials to commit human rights violations.
Or take American football, wherein we still demand that our players give each other brain damage while we only make marginal innovations in preventing it, even when we’re only paying them in kind for the value they add to multi-billion dollar companies run by millionaire executives.
Surely you’d expect a multinational network of quasi-governmental organizations to spring up in response to these things, but apparently not. Leagues and teams must have been too busy giving their employees the benefit of the doubt as they knocked out their wives or took bribes to place the Olympics.
I’m not going to sit here and list every bad thing carried out by a sports league, or suggest that all organized sport is corrupted because of their actions. I seek only to point out the disproportionate response to something relatively innocuous like PEDs. After this kind of sociopathic behavior from corporate sports leagues, there’s no way their fans or executives can continue to engage with them and still claim to care about fairness or safety.
So why not just let athletes juice?
These most popular leagues are inherently unfair. In fact, they’re designed to stratify genetically gifted people based only on their ability to perform physical feats. The venues for these feats are built at the expense of the poor, or any taxpayer whose local government gave a sports franchise a huge subsidy to build a stadium. Our demand for these performances is so inelastic that a football player could probably get caught up in a double murder and still sit at the top of the industry.
We created this ruthless culture of for-profit entertainment at any cost, so PEDs should have always been a welcome part of it, even if they didn’t arguably make sports way more entertaining. If people are going to even pretend to care about the integrity of the Olympics, the NFL, or any sport that anchors a multi-billion dollar industry on the backs of the public, they better start tearing these institutions down and rebuilding them from scratch before they start debating and legislating the morality of voluntary drug use.