Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Armstrong a symptom of an out-of-control sports industry

News that the seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong has been stripped of all his titles might seem to appear like something of a betrayal to some in the community. The global community, no less. After all, Armstrong is a household name pretty much everywhere. But while this failure must have hit a lot of people hard I find it difficult to see how it can be construed as much of a surprise. The sheer number of French wins should have alerted many to a trick. Apart from that, the use of every available means to extract the maximum quantity of stamina and power from their bodies can only make every rider a suspect, and the entire sport appear to be a vast con perpetrated on a trusting public by a large, wealthy sports industry.

You can see the dynamic at play everywhere in sport. I went to the Gold Coast V8 Supercars race on Saturday because I had never been to a motor race before and because I happened to be in town. The friend I went with was also very curious about the race. So we bought tickets and followed the crowd inside the enclosure. In the general admittance area you stand in the sun or under any tree you can find and eat overpriced junk food or drink cans of beer sold on-site. We waited an hour as two crashes that marred the race's start were cleared up. Once the race began the noise levels soared, with each of the 450kW Holdens and Fords completing the circuit in about 1min 15seconds. I looked around at the spectators, noting that among the men there seemed to be two types: tattooed and fit - with shirts off - or a nerdy type wearing a heavily-branded motorsports shirt. The crowd milled about within the enclosure or sat in grandstands placed at strategic points around the track. Each time the pack of competing vehicles emerged from the heat haze down the track they screamed past, the normal low burble of a classic Aussie V8 tuned to a pitch of intensity that only thousands of hours of dedicated engineering can achieve.

The idea that any of the V8s on the track much resemble a standard production Holden Commodore or Ford Falcon is laughable. But the fans don't care. Many of those tattooed youths own souped-up early-model Japanese sedans or hatchbacks that they use to make doughnut marks on local intersections. And those branded-shirt-wearing nerds own their own Commodores and Falcons but dream of owning a Beamer or a Merc, preferably one with eight cylinders and the kind of low mileage only a millionaire dreams about.

For a lot of men the idea of being able to achieve high performance in some aspect of their lives is important in terms of who they are. It's an identity thing. Some men certainly venture down the track adopted by Lance Armstrong. Go into a pharmacy anywhere in Australia and somewhere on the shelves you'll find huge plastic containers on sale for a couple of hundred dollars that are filled with dietary supplements that promise to help the fitness drone get the most out of his body. There are millions of vitamin pills in those pharmacies, too, and god-knows-what other legal chemicals, including steroids, that people consume so that they can feel good about themsleves. Such industries are probably worth billions of dollars to the national economy because they hold out a prize that is attainable only by separating oneself from a portion of the ready. Healthy men who want an impressive body shape can have their physiques airbrushed to perfection just by spending a bit of money.

In this atmosphere of desire and subterfuge it's difficult to see how athletes who compete for rich financial rewards can be blamed for overstepping boundaries that can only make sense to the most informed spectator. For most of us, it is all just part of a cycle of investment and exchange that has long been normalised by common use. Armstrong is merely a visible symptom of a culture of performance-enhancement that resembles nothing so much as the international cosmetics industry that offers to women the promise of feeling good.

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