Nationalistic bean feast
Jim Moody looks at chauvinism, drugs, and the Olympics
Such is the level of pollution in Beijing that city bosses have ordered restrictions on car use and the closing down of nearby steel plants for the duration of the 2008 summer Olympic Games, reflecting the priority Chinese authorities give to the explosion of nationalist fervour and opportunities for capital expansion that are key features of this four-yearly event.
Opening on August 8 (though there are two days of football matches beforehand), the XXIX Olympiad will feature two weeks of top athletics competition. Around 10,500 athletes from over 200 countries will compete in 28 sports and 302 separate events. For a two-month period starting last weekend, Beijing city officials aim to restrict traffic pollution by ordering almost half the city’s 3.3 million cars off the roads, reducing exhaust emissions by 63%. An extra 2,000 buses will be pressed into service to transport the extra commuters.
These are serious attempts to stem pollution. Closing down furnaces is especially costly, as their productive life is thereby badly curtailed. But not everyone believes this will be enough: for example, asthmatic Haile Gebrselassie, one of the all-time great distance runners, has already withdrawn from the marathon.
After the Games, when these restrictions on traffic and industry are removed, the population of Beijing goes back to breathing the same stinking air, of course, with serious and predictable results for morbidity and mortality rates. This is the reality of China’s soaring economy: an enormous burden laid on the working class, including in terms of health outcomes.
Today’s professionalisation of sport is a far cry from the gentlemanly, thoroughly aristocratic, origin of the modern Olympic Games, first staged in Athens in summer 1896 and attended by a mere 241 participants from 14 countries. No athlete then and for many decades after was officially permitted to be anything other than amateur, effectively excluding many potential champions through lack of funding and producing a distinct upper class bias among those taking part. Jim Thorpe was stripped of track and field medals for having taken expenses money for playing baseball in 1912.
From 1983 the hypocrisy of the ‘amateurs only’ rule was abandoned by most of the international sports federations, one after another, permitting openly professional athletes to take part. For example, in 1992 professional players from the National Basketball Association were allowed to play in the summer games in Barcelona. Exceptionally, boxing’s rules remain amateur, not professional, for the purposes of Olympic competition - allegedly for the safety of the boxers.
Now the ‘war by other means’ Olympics are also well and truly big business. The largest global corporations compete for sponsorship and contracts, all in the name of the ‘Olympic ideal’. Worldwide Olympic Partners currently include Coca-Cola, General Electric, Kodak, Samsung, Visa, Panasonic and McDonald’s. The Beijing 2008 Partners include Adidas, Johnson and Johnson, Volkswagen and a raft of Chinese corporations, such as Bank of China, China Mobile, Air China, State Grid, and Sinopec. And let us not forget 2008 Olympic sponsors and exclusive suppliers BHP Billiton, Budweiser, UPS, Schenker Logistics and Staples, among others.
It is all about winning - and not just for the mass-consumption reason of ‘national accomplishment’, but also because more and more the medal winners can thus become millionaires. Not only are the Olympics based on chauvinism: they are festooned in corporate logos, its athletes are recruited - bought - to promote particular products. Companies use the athletes’ reflected glory and image to sell commodities - not least sports apparel and footwear, usually at vastly inflated prices (compared to any rational use-value, that is).
For many athletes, the pressure to excel has a big bonus attached. So it is hardly surprising that some, maybe a majority, will use whatever means they can to get to the top. Performance-enhancing drugs thus look exceedingly attractive.
Drugs have been taken by human beings for millennia, so there is nothing extraordinary about athletes taking them. Victorian mountaineers in the Swiss Alps, for example, experimented with strychnine and arsenic compounds in order to improve their breathing and climbing capacity. This was reported at the time uncritically. But then they were not competing for a corporate prize at the end of their exertions. So, it was generally considered, they were doing what they wanted with their own bodies; any untoward consequences were their own responsibility.
Likewise at the start of the modern Olympics, there was no ban on drugs. When Thomas J Hicks won the marathon at the 1904 games after his coach gave him strychnine and brandy, including during the race, there was no suggestion that Hicks should be disqualified. In the 1930s, direct testosterone analogues were used by athletes to increase body bulk.
More recently, it is now irrefutable that many East German women athletes were (perhaps without their knowledge) given anabolic steroids and other drugs by coaches and trainers. None of them was disqualified, mainly because the drugs were not detected. Documents uncovered in 1990 revealed this as having been government policy. Such doping was probably done elsewhere in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. National socialism and national pride came before a fall. And it is more than likely that athletes were doped, at various levels of assent from them, in an widely organised manner.
It is largely accepted in the sports world that doping - performance-enhancing drug-taking - is widespread. Where intense effort is expended over long periods, as in competitive cycling, the use of amphetamines is rampant. Activities which need body bulk, such as weightlifting and discus, are rife with anabolic steroids; it is arguable whether early use in these sports can be detected later, since body bulk is developed long before drugs-testing periods and merely has to be sustained through training.
The residence time in the body of different drugs varies considerably. That is why cocaine, which can be excreted within 24 hours, is the drug of choice in UK prisons rather than marijuana, which can remain in the body - and be testable - for weeks. Thus the illegality of drugs in a prison context forces the ‘soft’ drugs user onto ‘hard’ drugs, with elevated risks from shared needles and adulteration.
As well as increasing muscle mass, steroids increase the size of heart, kidneys and liver. Hormones like synthetic erythropoietin and human growth hormone (HGH) are taken by at least a million Americans. Teenage bodybuilders use oral steroids such as oxandrolone (Oxandrin), oxymetholone (Anadrol), methandrostenolone (Dianubol), and methenolone acetate (Primobolan); injectable steroids include nandrolone decanoate (Deca Duraboloin), stanozol (Winstrol), and testosterone cypionate or enanthate. Clomiphene citrate is used to mask the androgenic effects of steroids, while diruretics prevent too much fluid accumulation during steroid use; both are indicators of steroid use to sports authorities.
Ephedrine is present in cold remedies; it has also become one of the most popular drugs amongst sportsmen and women, and is banned by the athletics authorities. Streetwise, word is that it is a powerful stimulant, speeding up interval workouts, increasing strength and assisting weight loss. Ice hockey players take it before games, weightlifters and runners use it to boost performance and many take it hoping to lose weight. Bitter orange peel is a sympathomimetic agent that works in a similar cardiovascular manner to ephedrine compounds. No-one has yet called for bitter oranges to be considered a banned substance, though anything is possible under the banning regimes of the sports bodies.
Closer to home, sprinter Dwain Chambers last week failed to get the high court to lift his British Olympic Association lifetime ban, for having tested positive for steroids in 2003. Despite excellent times in trials, he now has to accept the injustice that he cannot compete in the Beijing Olympics - nor any other such event, in perpetuity. Given the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs in athletics, Chambers was not only unlucky to be caught in the first place, but was then doomed by the lifetime ban culture of the (non-competing) bureaucratic controllers of sport.
UK Sport aims to screen all 1,500-odd UK participants in the Beijing Olympics, and the Paralympics being held there in September, for illicit drug use. Blood and urine samples will be demanded with no advance notice; it will usually be done during preparation time before they compete. It will include everyone from field athletes to swimmers, from shooters to equestrian eventers. The nationalistic bean feast that is the Olympics spectacle must not be sullied.
Our position as communists is clear and consistent. We decry the witch-hunt against athletes who may have ingested drugs of any kind, whether with the intention of enhancing their athletic performance or not. What drugs adults put in their bodies should be up to them. As much information as possible about drugs, including any deleterious effects in the short and long term, should be readily available. Drugs need to be above board and legalised.
Only the commercial pressures of a richer future for successful athletes has produced the explosion in athletes’ performance-enhancing drug use. Were individuals enabled to take part in sports freely (ie, with widespread, cheap and top-class facilities), everyone would have the potential to benefit from the healthy pursuit of a mass cultural activity. Instead of that, we have the spectacle of individuals performing for our gawping, chauvinist-fuelled entertainment and their own hoped-for aggrandisement.
It is hardly surprising that such a situation leads to a scramble to win at all costs. And then the money men step in with their surrogate policemen to ensure that their champions appear unsullied, at least until they complete the rounds of touting their tawdry commodities. Bourgeois corruption of an important component of human culture could hardly be more thorough.
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