31 August, 2008

The side-effects of being American

So here's the thing.

I started writing the post after the Olympic Opening Ceremony, but I never finished it, because I got caught up watching the Olympics. And, in the week since the Olympics finished, it's just been a long and busy week at work, and the last thing I want to do after that is come home and sit in front of the computer for any length of time working on my blog. But now I'm finishing the post. And here it is.

So here's the thing.

I was watching the Olympic opening ceremony, and during the interminable entry of the athletes, the commentators made an interesting comment about the flagbearer for one of the countries. I forget who the guy was, or which country he represented, but the commentators said that this guy had won a medal at the Athens Games, he had since been barred for drug use, but was now back at the Beijing Olympics, and he was a great athlete. Now, assuming the drugs he was caught taking were actually performance-enhancing drugs, rather than say illegal but non-performance-enhancing drugs, then I found the comment rather fascinating.

Because during the film festival, I saw a film called Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (see the trailer here), an entertaining documentary that sought to examine the issue of steroid use in sport, and ended up taking a rather interesting position on the subject. The filmmaker, a guy called Chris Bell, has actually used steroids in the past, and his two brothers still are. And so the film is a very personal exploration of the issue, with a filmmaker trying to reconcile his own feelings about the issue.

Now I want to state, right from the very start, that I did like the film, a lot. It was very thought-provoking, asked some good questions, and managed to have the entertainment value of a Michael Moore documentary without the general awfulness associated with Michael Moore. He makes particularly good use of pop culture clips to explore the way people like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or Hulk Hogan, all bulging muscles, were idolised in the past. It's an entirely enjoyable and thought-provoking film and I wholeheartedly recommend it. And I feel like I need to state this clearly, because I fear that what I'm about to say may be seen as a negative reaction to the film.

You see, the film has one fairly major flaw with it. It's too big, which causes the film to lose focus. It never quite feels like it's actually going anywhere - instead, the film almost feels like the director typed "anabolic steroids" into Google and decided to interview everyone that appeared in the resulting search, without any clear idea of why he's talking to these people.

Which is why I think a lot of people view this film as being "pro-steroids", which it's not. The film is very clearly not "anti-steroids", and it puts forward just enough arguments in favour of steroids to seem that it is almost adopting a position that steroid use in the sports world isn't actually a problem. In fact, going into the film, that's what I had heard it was doing, and one of the reasons why I wanted to see the film - the idea of the film arguing that position made me curious. And the film puts forward some convincing arguments. He certainly argues well that there's been a media-hype-created sigmatisation of steroids as some dangerous substance that is entirely unsubstantiated. He suggests that steroids are safe, the health problems have been completely overstated (apparently multivitamins kill more people), the side-effects are known, minor, and temporary, and the supposed "roid rage" doesn't exist. In one of the more interesting moments in the film, he points out one drug that is banned because it allows the body to process oxygen more efficiently, giving the athlete an advantage. On the other hand, you can get the exact same advantage by training at altitudes (and America has one of its top sports academies at altitude for this very reason), or by sleeping in a pressure chamber (and we meet one competitor who does the exact same thing). So why is it that this drug is banned when it just helps you keep up with the advantages other people are getting in other ways? In another moment, he explores one of the more surprising drug hypocrisies, revealing that US fighter pilots are required to take amphetamines, a much more dangerous drug, as part of their job. And in some areas like bodybuilding, where the focus is less on competition with others and more on competiting with your own body, is taking steroids even cheating, or just another way to build the body even further?

But in the end, all of this is a bit of a sidetrack to his real point. Bell makes good use of the incredible opening speech in the film "Patton", in which Patton (who was himself a former Olympic competitor) states "When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, big league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time." And that is Chris Bell's ultimate point. We may tut-tut over drug cheats, act disapproving when people are caught taking performance-enhancing drugs, but ultimately what we care about is that we win. And the sporting world is so rife with drugs these days that there is a degree to which competitors in many arenas need to consider taking drugs just to keep up. And that is the question the film asks. Do we actually want to see sports remain drug free, or are we really just interested in seeing world records being broken and contests won? And if we're truly honest, we're probably more interested in winning, provided we don't get burdened with the knowledge about what it took to win.

And that's an interesting and challenging question that Chris Bell poses, and one I never would have expected. It's just a shame the film is a little too unfocused to clearly explore the question. Still, it's a stimulating and enjoyable film, and well worth seeking out.


eT said...

No discussion of the use of steroids in sport would be complete without the obligatory reference to the (allegedly) ever-expanding head of baseballer Barry Bonds, who heads the Major League Baseball record for career home runs:


Matthew L said...

The film does indeed discuss Mr Bonds, and I had originally had a section in my post where I referred to him, but I deleted that portion of the post as I didn't feel it was working. (I also referred in the same part to Ben Johnson losing his gold medal in Seoul, and the fact that Carl Lewis, who picked up the gold as a result, apparently failed a drugs test at the Olympic trials, but it was dismissed as "accidental" as a result of using cold medicine.)