Friday, May 21, 2010


Chris Rock did a routine calling out women for wearing high heels and bras. "You ain't that tall!" he said. He called women liars for trying to pull one over on us. "When you date a woman," he went on, "you don't date the woman, you date her agent." The routine was funny. The charge, though, is serious. He exposed systematic cheating -- by a whole sex!

I remember when I was in middle school and the girls were starting to wear makeup. Feeling helpful, I explained that I preferred natural beauty. Well, responded the girl still willing to talk to me, I wear makeup for me. It didn't help to point out the flimsiness of the argument. Isn't it obvious that girls make themselves look pretty for boys?

Boys and girls are expert at arranging hierarchies. Boys figure out who's dominant and girls figure out who's pretty. They make lists. It's pretty straightforward in elementary school. Clear skin, straight teeth, symmetrical features, etc. determine prettiness. Boys settle dominance with sports and/or fights. The boys know who is the fastest, strongest, best. Girls know who is prettiest.

Having the opposite sex arrayed from least to most desirable helps define your aspirations. It may not be in your best interest, however, to have your own position fixed. That's where middle and high school comes in. Those unhappy with positioning within a group can move to another group, or start a new one. Cliques form around some definable subcultures: preps, punks, nerds, jocks, etc. As they reposition themselves within groups, young people tinker with self-improvement. A kid in band might take private lessons and practice routinely. A skater may spend every afternoon working on tricks at the concrete steps down the road. A young lady may take medicine for acne, get braces for her teeth, and spend Saturdays shopping for the style that fits her best.

And, some of us take up a sport.

If you were like me, you ended up in a sport in which you were most likely to excel. I spent middle school playing soccer. I had a reasonably defined group of friends who also played. I was not among the best players. When I started high school, I didn't immediately have to worry about going out for the soccer team because soccer was a spring sport. The cross-country coach was recruiting runners, though, so I went out for the team. It was clear from the start that I would be among the best runners my age. In the spring when I had to choose between soccer and track, I chose track.

We feel that it is wise to choose activities that play to our strengths. It enhances our standing by defining a group with whom we favorably compare. I gave up being a mediocre soccer player to be a top runner. We respect decisions like that.

Suppose that my high school didn't have a cross country team, and so, at age 14, I continued to play soccer. Further, imagine that I have an uncle who is wealthy and an avid soccer fan. He takes an interest in my play and offers to pay for private coaching, soccer camps, and a personal trainer who manages my overall conditioning and nutritition. I enjoy the attention of my private coach, I love going to soccer camp, and my personal trainer gives me great tasting shakes that keep my hunger down and my energy up. My play improves, of course, and as a sophomore I start for the varsity soccer team. Only one other sophomore starts. The rest of the group, among whom I had been mediocre, is now relegated to start behind me.

Again, we respect that kind of self-improvement. I may not have figured it out on my own, but I did put in the time. It may not have been a struggle (my coaches and trainer were pleasant people) but it certainly took energy to complete the assigned tasks. Something troubling, however, lurks behind this imagined scenario. I'll describe two monsters -- one an insubstantial ghost -- but the other, I think, more threatening.

I can imagine two versions of myself as a soccer player: one who emerges with the help of my uncle (and his cadre of professionals), and one who develops without that intervention. It seems safe to say that, at least at the level of high school sports, my standing among the team is significantly altered depending on which self we examine. So which one is the "ghost" and which one is "real?" You may be tempted to say both are me, because the real person is deeper than athletic performance. Let's be mindful of the effects of athletic performance, and particularly athletic standing, on other life pursuits. We have hierarchies for a reason. Which me is going to have a better chance at dating the homecoming queen? Which me is more likely to pursue a high paying career? I think it matters whether I get the help of my uncle. I don't think it's a threat, though, to how real my improved self is. We are all improved versions of who we might have been. We don't worry that our improved vision is pretentious because we had to get prescription eyeglasses.We don't worry that our improved health is false because we immunized ourselves against debilitating diseases. Our pursuit of self-improvement is, in fact, one of our defining qualities, and one that we value in ourselves and others. Our improved attributes are as real, and worthy, as any.

The other monster is more problematic. That is: what will happen when the other soccer players catch on? They see me improving, after all, and not just in absolute terms. I'm improving my standing relative to them. One used to beat me in a one-on-one drill, and now I beat him. Another used to start at left-mid, now I start at that position. Even if the kid can shrug it off, what about his helicopter parent? The dad casually asks my mom "what are you feeding him?" It gets out about my coach. So a couple of the parents, who can afford it, hire the same coach. My friends ask about my soccer camps -- and that summer several show up with me. It doesn't take long to create a monstrous regime that kids will embrace to stay competitive. "All for the better!" you might say. Everyone improves. To what end? If everyone employs a similar training regimen, no one gains compared to the others. It's an arms race.

The most obvious examples of pointless escalation come in the equipment used in some sports. Consider the bodysuits used by swimmers to decrease drag and increase bouyancy. The invention of the suits spurred a flurry of new world records. German swimmer Paul Biedermann beat Michael Phelps and afterwards readily admitted "it was the suit." If the suits had not been subsequently banned, all swimmers would have had to wear them to be competive. So Phelps' coach announced he would not compete unless they were banned. Professional cycling is replete with arms races. Newfangled bikes, for every kind of condition faced even in a single road race, are rolling out all the time. Why don't they issue stock bikes and just compare riders?

One response is that we value innovation and the can-do spirit that motivates people to push at the boundaries of what we think is possible for them, and for a sport. The "me" who showed up first with a personal trainer and coach showed some spunk. That is worth something, even if ultimately it levels back out. And who knew kids could get so much better with a little training?

In that spirit, though, cyclists find potent means of self-improvement. Floyd Landis is back in the news admitting to an entire professional career based on use of performance enhancing drugs. He says he spent $90,000 a year on treatments that included EPO, HGH, and blood doping. Wrapped into that expense is a program for covering up the drug use. If drugs are used in the same spirit of self-improvement as aero-bars, though, why are drugs banned, and aero-bars allowed? If cyclists really just want a level playing field, why don't they all agree to use the same equipment?

When we compare athletes, what attributes do we value? We know Lance Armstrong "has a big engine." We can measure his maximum oxygen consumption, and compare that to other athletes. But then why race? There are many variables during competition, and some things that are hard to know in advance. Don't we value athletes who put it together when it counts, especially when we didn't see it coming? Don't we love it when athletes come from behind, or win in an upset? Athletes need to be able to rally resources in new and unexpected ways. They demonstrate what is possible. Landis' ride to overtake the field when he won the Tour De France was thrilling. So how did he become cycling's pariah?

Drug use is problematic, in part, because we can't know for sure who is doing it. Riders sign on to a ban, I think, because it increases the chances that others won't do it. If they are smart enough to do it, without others knowing, it gives them an advantage. This is like if the fictitious soccer-playing me had been helped by my uncle, but I kept my regimen a secret. The other kids might never have caught on, and I could have maintained my improved standing. Landis blew it. Not by taking drugs, which seems to be ubiquitous at the top levels of cycling, but by getting caught.

The girls who are prettiest in elementary school should prefer that the others never discover the world of enhancements that open up in middle school. And guys like me (at the time) might prefer that girls remain unadorned for convenient comparison. Those girls won't comply, though, and they shouldn't. By tinkering with shoes, clothes, make-up, and ultimately themselves, they keep shuffling the deck. That makes the game less predictable, and more interesting. At least until we get married.

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