With Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants becoming the new Major League Baseball home run king, sports was again featured in unlikely news outlets such as PBS’s The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. While his athletic achievement is remarkable enough, it is Barry Bonds’ off-field issues that made this story an especially controversial one. Hank Aaron’s passing of Babe Ruth was contentious in 1974 because of race issues – an African-American man surpassing a hallowed record of a white man. Barry Bonds issue came to the forefront of debates because of his alleged use of performance enhancing drugs.
To recap the story: After a federal investigation of BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative) in 2003, the owner Victor Conte and a trainer Greg Anderson were accused of providing illegal performance-enhancing drugs to a number of professional athletes. This led to a widespread investigation, including a congressional inquiry, on the use of performance-enhancing drugs by baseball players. Drug scandals from the Olympics, cycling, and soccer had long been a recognized problem, with testing of athletes starting in the 1960s. But with the advent of a number of new technologies, made visible by the number of American sport icons alleged to have used performance-enhancing drugs and the growing epidemic of doping among American college and high school athletes, doping became a major social issue in America, and Barry Bonds became the symbol of such unethical and illegal practices.
The development and use of performance-enhancing drugs, like the issue of genetically-modified organisms in agriculture, shows how science has become an integral aspect of culture, deeply embedded in our politics, creating the hybridity described by Bruno Latour. Both the use of biochemical inputs to improve human physiological performances and genetic manipulation in agriculture have long been a part of history – humans have been breeding plants and animals for certain characteristics for millennia. Here is where I think Latour’s description of the futility of what he defines as modernity – keeping separate the two practices of translation and purification (from We Have Never Been Modern) – has great explanatory power. This instability has created the social problems of performance enhancing drugs – the sanctity of what is considered fully natural, athletic prowess, should neither be contaminated (made hybrid) by either science nor capitalism – but of course, this cannot be the case, and reality has a way of infiltrating our cultural imaginations.
What I think is an interesting implication of the issue of performance-enhancing drugs is how it makes us question again what it means to be human. Are contemporary athletes the embodiment of cybersubjectivity? Perhaps a more telling case would be the struggle of South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius to become an Olympic sprinter. Pistorius has been a double-amputee (below the knee) since he was 11 months old. To run, he uses special prosthetics made of carbon fiber, and has easily won international competitions for disabled athletes; his times in the 100 m., 200m., and 400 m. are quite competitive, almost reaching the Olympic qualifying times for men. The IAAF, the world governing body for track and field, has placed limits on the use of technological enhancements (such as performance enhancing drugs), but they have allowed other technological enhancements to be used for training (such as the use of tents designed to simulate high-altitude conditions). The IAAF has yet to rule on his case. Athletes seem to be a highly visible embodiment of the transhuman or posthuman, making such issues more tangible than Blade Runner or Commander Data could.