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Testosterone Dreams: Professor studies complex intersection of sports, doping and public opinion

If world-class hammer thrower John McEwen had tested positive for Viagra, Ritalin or Zoloft instead of the steroid tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), he would not be facing suspension from the U.S. track and field team right now.

The recent explosion of doping scandals that have left almost no professional sport untouched highlight a disturbing possibility. Almost every record of superior athletic performance by a human being could be invalid, depending on one’s definition of “doping.”

John Hoberman
Dr. John Hoberman

At the same time that journalists, sports officials and some fans are raising a hue and cry over doping in sports and castigating professional athletes who are “cheaters,” several basic questions surrounding performance-enhancement drugs have yet to be answered. Why are some performance-enhancement aids, like Prozac, caffeine, ointments and sugar, okay and others, like human growth hormone and THG, not? Who is to say what is natural and what is artificial when it comes to the bottomless cocktail of pills and powders that professional athletes ingest? And what is so inherently wrong with pursuing improved physical performance in the absence of restraints?

Dr. John Hoberman, professor of Germanic languages in the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin, has been researching and writing about the complicated intersection of sports, politics, science, public opinion and the Olympics for the past 20 years. He has written four books on the political, historical, racial and pharmacological dimensions of sport and published close to 100 newspaper and magazine articles on these topics. He has been interviewed by every media entity from the BBC to The New York Times about athletes and doping. One conclusion he has reached after two decades of research centers on a puzzling fact—athletes are the only performers left in modern societies who are stigmatized for the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

“Even when you go into Jester dorm, for example,” said Hoberman, “you pass several soft drink machines and in one of them you can see cans of a liquid that is absolutely packed with stimulants—ginseng, caffeine, guarana. This liquid may enable the user to stay up all night and complete a paper for class or study for a test. If you’re a student who needs to use this drink to prepare for a competition, your final exam, it’s okay. If you’re an athlete who lives in the same dormitory and needs to prepare for your track meet by using anabolic steroids or stamina-boosting EPO, that’s expressly forbidden.”

In its campaign against doping in sports, the recently established World Anti-Doping Association has faced an uphill battle in determining acceptable versus unacceptable forms of performance enhancement. If coffee is a “natural” substance, does that make caffeine an artificial substance? Is getting pregnant to boost athletic performance “natural?” If testosterone is “natural,” does that make anabolic steroids, which have the same effects, “unnatural?”

Muscled arm of a person weightlifting
According to Dr. Hoberman, athletes are the only members of modern societies who are stigmatized for using performance-enhancing drugs.

The dichotomy between what is natural and artificial enhancement and, therefore, natural or unnatural human performance, is at the heart of a complex debate and is one of many aspects of doping that Hoberman discusses in his book “Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport” (1992). The story of the obsessive drive for bigger, better and faster human machines reads like a cross between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, an H.G. Wells hair-raiser and a particularly engrossing copy of Scientific American.

According to Hoberman, the desire to push the limits of human athletic potential can be found as far back as the Greeks, who consumed sesame seeds, dried figs, mushrooms and herbs for enhanced athletic performance. From that point to the present, performance-enhancing aids have included everything from monkey testicles and ultraviolet light to bat blood, dried tortoise and the banned anabolic steroids that create doping scandals on which the media feeds.

Although history is littered with examples of everyone from aviators and soldiers to professional musicians using bioactive substances to facilitate healing, heighten sexual pleasure, experience intoxication or increase productivity, it was not until the 1920s and ’30s that a distinct stigma attached to athletic performances that were “artificially” enhanced. In the more extreme examples of state-sponsored doping in East Germany, for example, where young Olympians were given medically dangerous amounts of steroids without their knowledge, a form of criminal medicine was enlisted in the pursuit of excellence at any cost.

But fans have not stopped watching the athletes and attending the games.

“Society’s reaction to doping and performance-enhancement drugs is surprisingly ambivalent when you get right down to it,” said Hoberman. “There is fear of a world where everything that science can conceive will become a reality, and that there will be an increasing and dangerous dehumanization of life, sport included. And then there’s the fact that, even though doping is known to be rampant in professional cycling, the crowds still gather and cheer along the side of the road during the Tour de France. Athletes, scientists, medical professionals and sports officials have to wonder if the public really does care all that much about steroid use. And if no one cares, why are we still penalizing the athletes?”

The recent “designer steroid” scandal involving both professional and Olympic athletes has focused unprecedented attention on this very question—does it matter to the general public, who consumes various drugs for performance-enhancing purposes, if athletes take banned substances or not?

Bottles of nutritional supplements at a health food store
Performance-enhancement aids can run the gamut from sugar and vitamins to steroids and amphetamines.

According to a recent New York Times poll, more than a third of Americans stated that they did not care if professional athletes were using performance-enhancing drugs. Given the public mindset, perhaps it is not surprising that athletes single-mindedly obsessed with performance throw caution to the wind and use drugs to turn back the clock, hit one more home run or prolong a tennis career, occasionally with fatal results.

In “Mortal Engines,” Hoberman notes that during 1987-88 alone, 18 Belgian and Dutch professional cyclists died. The cause of death for most of them was assumed to be megadoses of artificially produced erythropoetin, a naturally occurring hormone that stimulates the formation of red blood cells and increases the amount of oxygen that reaches muscles. An underground report released just prior to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games asserted that many Soviet athletes feared for their health as a result of the training procedures to which they were subjected. German biochemist and international drug detection expert Manfred Donike even went on record in 1985 as stating that the legalization and consequent increased use of anabolic steroids would cause hundreds of deaths among overly zealous users.

According to Hoberman, the traditional ideal of professional athletes and Olympians who adhere to the “gentlemanly” ideals of sportsmanship, fairness and self-restraint is almost quaint and has been replaced by adherence to the “performance principle.” Sports officials who turn a blind eye to doping, doctors who administer dangerous drugs and, during the Olympics, a flag-waving nationalistic fervor that leads to concealment of illicit drug use have not helped solve the problem. In the absence of self-restraint and good, old-fashioned honesty, drug testing becomes the only measure of the “integrity” of athletes who often are held up as role models.

“Drugs are being created that are impossible to detect in the body and many athletes are willing to take any risk to break a record or win a game, so the medical and health aspect of doping is of great importance,” said Hoberman. “Drug testing is often a farce, and this means that many professional athletes are literally risking their health or even their lives to lift more pounds, run faster or ride a bike farther. We’re looking at an ethical issue with doping, because it opposes ideas of fair play and sportsmanship. There’s a medical angle in that there are potentially harmful effects that may be unknown until it’s too late. And then there’s the anthropological point that certain enhancements can produce people who seem to be ‘unnatural’ or grotesque.”

As Hoberman points out, what is deemed “unnatural” changes over time and medical realities are in a constant state of flux. At one point, test tube babies, septuagenarian “Viagra dads,” “muscles” made of electroactive polymers and the use of artificial organs to prolong life would have been the terrifying stuff of science fiction. Or a joke.

Person drinking coffee and working on laptop
The World Anti-Doping Agency has removed caffeine from the list of banned substances for 2004.

Hoberman’s research has allowed him to explore a brave new world in which athletes and scientists persuade the public that drug use is acceptable and hormonal therapies are increasingly recommended for an aging population. His personal view of enhancement, however, includes both a therapeutic pragmatism as well as a purist’s desire for a simpler era when athletes were assumed, often erroneously, to be drug-free.

“I think my interest in sports began when I was a boy and saw Roger Bannister break the four-minute barrier,” said Hoberman. “It was a great moment in sports and it fascinated me. Also, I’ve been a runner for most of my life. With corruption so prevalent in sports federations, with the hypocrisy involved in requiring professional athletes to be ‘clean’ while others are allowed to take everything from Ritalin to human growth hormone, and with a shortage of reliable drug tests for athletes, I don’t see drug-free sport in our future. But it would really be nice to see the wholesome aspect restored.”

Hoberman’s research career has been closely tied to the teaching he has done at The University of Texas at Austin since 1979. Much of his responsibility to the Department of Germanic Studies involves Scandinavian studies courses and teaching the Norwegian language.

At the same time, his first two books produced valuable material for a course entitled “Sports, Politics and the Olympic Games.” Teaching “Race and Sport in African-American Life” provided important material for “Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race” (1997), a book which produced a national controversy over the relationship between sport and individuals of African descent.

His course “Race and Medicine in African-American Life” ties in to a book in progress on the origins and consequences of medical racism, while his forthcoming book, “Testosterone Dreams: Rejuvenation, Aphrodisia, Doping,” will help him prepare to teach “Pharmacology and Human Enhancements” for the Plan II honors program in the fall.

Kay Randall

Photos: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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