The Price of Winning at Any Cost

Published February 1, 2004

The Washington Post Outlook section, p. B05

It’s Super Bowl Sunday. A day of hype and heroics. Big money and bragging rights. In all likelihood, more people will watch Super Bowl XXXVIII on television than will vote in the next election. But some of us who have watched football since before the first Super Bowl will find ourselves perplexed: What sort of human activity are we watching and why? And who are these supersize combatants on our screens?

What the screen rarely reveals are the competitors behind the men on the gridiron: a slew of trainers, nutritionists, physical therapists, psychic advisers and video analysts, not to mention their hidden boosters — a wide range of supplements, surgeries and performance-enhancing drugs.

We are a long way from the sporting days of “Chariots of Fire,” when an Olympics-bound athlete could be censured for using a professional trainer. Today, although we still fuss about the use of steroids in sports, we are actually complicit in the growing dependencies of our gigantic heroes. We not only enjoy the spectacle of greater power and speed pitted against fiercer pursuit and bone-crushing tackles; we cannot readily articulate our unease with performance-enhancing drugs — either in athletics or in many other activities.

That is partly because it is not easy to specify the ethical difference between enhancing performance through improved equipment, diet or training, and enhancing it through surgery, genetic alteration or drugs. How exactly are Air Jordan basketball shoes different from steroids? Why do we accept dietary supplements but reject blood-doping? Why is it okay for Tiger Woods to have surgery to obtain better than 20/20 vision, but improper for asthmatic runners to use amphetamine-containing inhalers? How shall we distinguish coffee to keep us awake from modafinil to enable us to go sleepless for days? If it is acceptable to give short children growth hormone to make them taller, why not give thin athletes steroids to bulk them up?

The absence of bright lines between these approaches does not make the territories themselves indistinct. With a little reflection, we can distinguish daily training for an upcoming race from running the race with the benefit of steroids.

In athletics, as in many areas of human life, practice is the most important means of improving performance. Specific abilities are improved by means of self-directed effort, exercise and activity. One gets to run faster by running; one builds up endurance by enduring; one increases one’s strength by using it on ever-increasing burdens. The capacity to be improved is improved by using it; the deed to be perfected is perfected by doing it. The causal link between training and improvement is utterly intelligible.

The steroid-using athlete also improves, but passively and unintelligibly. True, the bioengineer who produces the biological agents can understand the physiochemical processes behind the improvement. But, from the athlete’s perspective, he (or she) improves as if by magic, without the self-directed activity that lies at the heart of better training. True, steroids (or, someday, genetic muscle enhancement) may enable an athlete to improve only if he continues to train. But as the athlete will surely attest, the changes in his body are owed to the pills he pops or the shots he takes, whose effects are utterly opaque to his direct human experience.

The drugstore athlete benefits from the mastery of modern biology, but he risks a partial alienation from his own doings, as his identity increasingly takes shape at the molecular rather than the experiential level. Indeed, the athlete’s likely embarrassment proves the point: Even if steroids and stimulants were to become legal, one imagines that most athletes would rather not be seen injecting themselves in public right before the race. There is something shameful about revealing that one’s deeds depend on chemicals right before demonstrating what is supposed to be one’s personal excellence.

What would be the source of shame? Some will say taking steroids is a form of cheating: gaining an unfair edge over an opponent. But, again, were taking performance-enhancers to be legalized, everybody (or nearly everybody) who desired to compete at the highest level might well use them. The problem of extra advantage would largely disappear. Who or what, then, would be cheated?

The athlete’s health is surely one candidate. To excel in sports should not mean accepting a sentence of premature death or serious disability. As admirers of athletes, we should not want to exploit those we most esteem for our entertainment; and we should not want to treat our fellow human beings as expendable animals.

But athletic activity is often intrinsically unsafe, and concerns for mere safety seen as far less important than victory. If facing risk is part of what it takes to be superior, one might even argue that a boxer’s or quarterback’s willingness to use such drugs, at great personal cost, is not dehumanizing but admirable — a sacrifice of oneself to the game one loves.

All human excellence, truth to tell, requires at least some distortion: putting aside many activities to excel in one. Think of the strange life led by Olympic gymnasts, often whisked away from normal childhood to enter the all-consuming world of the training camp. Sometimes this separation from ordinary life enables individuals to embody the best that human beings are capable of. At other times, the pursuit of our chosen activity so distorts the human whole as to call into question the dignity of the performer. The deeper danger, then, is that we improve our performance at the cost of our full humanity; that we become better by no longer fully being ourselves.

Performance-enhancing agents not only distort other dimensions of human life — for example, by causing early death or sexual impotence; they also distort the athletic activity itself. Its performance seems less real, less the athlete’s own, less worthy of our admiration. It is not simply that our greatest sportsmen could become bad fathers if their enhancements made them uncontrollably aggressive or left them prematurely dead. It is that they are, despite their higher scores and faster times, diminished as sportsmen — not because they cheated their opponents, but because they cheated themselves and the very athletic activity in which they seem to excel. The performed deed may be superior, but it is less a deed of the particular doer, more the work of his chemist.

Any human act humanly done is done knowingly and by conscious choice. But the humanity of our deeds resides not only in their intelligibility or our acts of will; it depends also on the performance of a well-tuned and well-working body. The body in question is not a mere machine, not just any animal body but a human one; not someone else’s body but one’s own. Each of us lives with and because of certain bodily gifts that owe nothing to our rational will. Each of us not only has a body; each of us also is a body.

In few activities is this truth more manifest than in sports. When we see the outstanding athlete in action, we do not see — as we do in horse racing — a rational agent riding a separate animal body. What we see is a body harmoniously at work, with discipline and focus, tacitly obeying the rules of the game. We can tell immediately that the human runner is engaged in goal-directed activity, that he is not running in flight moved by fear or in pursuit moved by hunger. Yet while the peculiarly human character of the running is at once obvious, the rationality of the bodily activity is tacit and unobtrusive. So attuned is the body, and so harmonious is it with heart and mind, that — in the best instance — the activity of the athlete appears effortlessly to flow from a unified being. At such moments the athlete experiences and displays something like the unity of doer and deed one observes in other animals, but for humans that unity is a notable achievement which far transcends what mere animals are capable of. It is this noble display that wins the hearts of true lovers of sport, who are interested in more than mere recordable performance and spectacle.

We are well on our way to gaining greater biotechnical power to reengineer the human body and mind, all in the service of “superior performance.” What kind of society might we become? We might come to see human running and dog races, singers and synthesizers, linebackers and robots, as little different from one another. Human athletes, here mostly for our entertainment or our use, might become little more than props. We might lose sight of the difference between real and false excellence, and eventually not care. And in the process, the very ends we desire might become divorced from any idea of what is humanly superior, and therefore humanly worth seeking or admiring. Children, as President Bush noted in the State of the Union address, would be sent the wrong message: “that there are shortcuts to accomplishment and that performance is more important than character.” We would become a society of spectators, and our activities mere spectacles. Worst of all, we would be in danger of turning our would-be heroes into slaves, who exist only to entertain us and whose freedom to pursue human excellence has been shackled by the need to perform — and conform — for our amusement and applause.

Enjoy the game.

Leon Kass, Hertog Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Eric Cohen is editor in chief of the New Atlantis journal. Parts of this article rely heavily on the council’s recent report, “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness,” available at


© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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