He Did It on Hot Dogs and Beer. Natural Excellence in Human Athletic Achievement

David Wasserman, J.D., M.A.

There is a great deal of sanctimony in the condemnation of Barry Bonds for allegedly using steroids to acquire the muscle power to break the season and lifetime homerun records once held by Babe Ruth. Had steroids been available, the voracious Babe might have used them with the same abandon with which he consumed hot dogs and beer. But behind the sanctimony lies genuine disappointment that the public cannot take more complete satisfaction in Bonds’s prodigious hitting. The claim that he cheated is in one sense about his alleged violation of the rules of the game, which prohibit steroid use. But it is also, perhaps more strongly, about the justification for the rule: even if baseball permitted steroids, those complaining about Bonds would still be inclined to put an asterisk next to his records and would reject the rule as undermining the spirit of the game. Babe Ruth’s records, as well as those of Roger Maris and Hank Aaron, are seen as natural human achievements in a way that Bonds’s is not. The former achievements realized human potential; the latter do not. But Bonds is obviously human, and the instruments he used to set his records were no more artificial (or more so only to an acceptable extent) than those used by the Sultan of Swat. How can his use of steroids undermine his claim to have more fully realized human potential than his predecessors?

The collective pride we are supposed to take at the unending succession of longer jumps, higher vaults, heavier presses, and so forth is predicated on the notion that relentless competition and steady improvement in nutrition, exercise, and coaching serve to bring us ever closer to realizing our full potential as a species. Paul Weiss articulated a notion of sports as revealing a distinctively human excellence, in which all humans partake, when he declared that “It is because he is an outstanding instance of what man might do and be that an athlete is an outstanding man. . . . Athletes are excellence in the guise of man” (1969, p. 17). For Weiss, athletic achievement redounded to the glory of humanity, not of the individual athlete. But this suggests that the achievement must manifest the latent excellence of human beings—that it must realize a human potential.

Human potential can apparently be realized by some sorts of outside intervention, while being superseded or bypassed by others. Muscles can be strengthened by the latest exercise technology but not by drugs; performance can be enhanced by improvement in equipment, such as pole vaults and sneakers, but not by propulsive devices, except in auto racing and the like. An athlete who breaks a record with a fiberglass pole has more fully realized human potential, but an athlete who breaks a record with a fiberglass limb has manifested an excellence that is not entirely human. True, Oscar Pistorius can now compete in Olympic races with a prosthetic limb but only because of a finding that his use of the limbs expends as much energy as a typical athlete’s use of his own natural limb (Wollbring, 2008; Camporesi, 2008). If he were to set a world record, there would still be a temptation to place an asterisk beside his name.

The general issue raised by the use of biotechnology to enhance athletic performance can be framed as follows: What would be lost if the pharmacological, medical, or genetic enhancement of athletic performance were (to modify the Clinton slogan about abortion) safe, legal, and widespread? Athletes would certainly train as hard—the legality and the widespread use of biotechnological enhancement would protect enhanced athletes against complacency and lax training. It would be not only dogmatic but also implausible to insist that such changes would inevitably reduce the quality or excitement of competition. Imagine the impact on boxing if most heavyweight contenders could float like butterflies and sting like bees! If biotechnological enhancements will not necessarily dampen the intensity or excitement of athletic competition, however, they may alter other aspects of sports that make them valuable to players and fans. In exploring the anxieties raised by biological enhancement, I seek to identify the values it appears to threaten.

I begin by looking at the more plausible objections proffered by critics of biotechnological enhancement and argue that they fail to justify the categorical exclusion of many enhancements or to provide a clear distinction between the natural and artificial. I then turn to the critique of biological enhancement by the President’s Council on Bioethics (2003), which suggests several more credible misgivings about the effects of technological interventions on the meaning and value of athletic competition. These misgivings, however, are not specific, let alone unique, to biotechnology and have greater force for some sports than others. I seek to link these specific misgivings with the more general appeals to nature made in the debates over enhancement in other domains. In connecting the two, I adopt an account that treats such appeals to nature as invocations of the social and cultural background constraints that give meaning to human activities. In the final section, I consider how differences in the background constraints for various sports, and for other important human activities, may bear on the acceptability of biotechnological enhancement.

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