The Transhuman Barry Bonds

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.

6 thoughts on “The Transhuman Barry Bonds

  1. I am loving your posts, Fuji, thank you! Big Sports seems to be a great place to track the work of futile forms of purification, right? On the one hand, you have technology creating ever more perfect athletes: the technologies brought to bear on even high school athletes are pretty remarkable. On the other hand, you have the ‘bad faith’ premise that somehow what is displayed in sport is ‘natural’ talent or ambition or both. The putative purity of sport (which previously was taken to an extreme in the Olympic ideology of the ‘amateur’) systematically screens out its hopelessly hybrid nature. This dialectic or logic can be seen across salient dimensions, from the ‘commercial’ to the ‘physical.’ Complaints about the commercialization of sport thus seem sometimes to mimic complaints about ‘performance enhancing drugs.’ I see it as all part of modernist narratives: rationalization and technology in many cultural domains evokes and eulogizes the lost forms of authenticity it inevitably displaces.

    My favorite take on sport and performance enhancement is the argument that sports is really entertainment, and that asking athletes not to use drugs would be like asking celebrities not to have plastic surgery. I think Howard Stern makes this argument. Contemporary sports is, simply, celebrity on the playing field. Why should sport be subject to myths of moral purity that other forms of entertainment are not?

  2. fuji, i don’t know if your invocation of “transhuman” intended to signal the debate in that circle about human enhancement, but certainly sports are always a topic of debate when transhumanists gather (e.g. here). The topic is most interesting when it intersects with disability activists and in places like the movie Murderball. Indeed, one would think that the manifest success with which we can now enhance human bodies in the most amazing ways would focus debate on the values of sport and gaming, rather than on the definition of the human… but one would be naive to believe that now wouldn’t one 🙂

  3. Re Strong: Sports is subject to myths of moral purity because of its putative competitive aspect – the so-called level playing field, may the best person win, etc. It is of course entertainment, but there is a demand for some kind of authenticity from sports fans; I’ll write a post on this next week, in terms of my own research on referees. The scripting of WWE wrestling is the antithesis of what sports fans want, like the spontaneity of live performances. Even when it is scripted, entertainment audiences don’t really want to know that a live performance is contrived; maybe I’m showing my age, but think about the Milli Vanilli scandal. But you’re right – as the saying goes, if you’re not cheating you’re not trying hard enough.
    CKelty reads me like a book – yes, I was trying to signal that debate by dropping the buzzword instead of proper footnotes! My own work doesn’t take me there, but it’s a fascinating literature. The gaming aspect really needs more research – stuff like WoW (World of Warcraft) and Second Life. I’m waiting with baited breath for Tom Boellstorf’s book Coming of Age in Second Life to come out, I think with Princeton UP. I have a friend, Thomas Malaby, who is also finishing up a manuscript on Second Life. Cyberspace lets us push the definitions of both human and gaming!

  4. My brother always said Bonds had a bionic arm.

    Anyway, the argument for allowing athletes to taken enhancement drugs is all and good, but where would it stop?: knock-out drug injection on contact for tackling, embedded jet packs for slam dunks, laser pointers to blind opponents, multiple extensible arms for outfielders, and giant flaps of octupus skin to cover soccer goal posts like the head of a bongo drum.

    Sports must rely on limitations because to not do so may threaten the very structure of the sports themselves.

  5. Serendipitously, Ruth and I were exercising this morning with BBCWorld on in the background and happened to see Rob Bonnet’s Extratime interview with Victor Conte, who made a career out of and suffered a short jail sentence for providing “elite athletes” with illegal steroids. Conte is now advising the United States Anti-Doping Association on how to improve testing for illegal substances. He says candidly, however, that he thinks performance-enhancing substances of one kind or another have always been part of the world of Olympic and other commercialized sports and always will be, given the ease with which testing regimes can be evaded and the amounts of money at stake. Listening to him talk, I found myself wondering how can we distinguish between the effects of better or worse nutrition and use of other substances consumed in the same way as, for example, ordinary vitamin pills. What about the calcium-zinc-magnesium supplement I take to ease the cramps I sometimes get in my legs, which I seem to have inherited from my father, who got them, too. If I were an athlete, would these be an “unnatural” way to enhance my performance?

  6. Re John: I think perhaps the jargon of “performance enhancing drugs” may be misleading – what the media really means to say are “banned performance enhancing drugs.” As any college athlete of today knows, there is a list out there of all the things that you are not supposed to eat/drink/use (this wasn’t a concern back in the 1980s when I played). You are right in your point, in that Gatorade is clearly an unnatural way to avoid cramps, while bananas and other sources of potassium I guess would be “natural.” In the end, there is some kind of bureaucratic rationality at play here. Although I am guilty of using overused catchphrases, I edited out “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying hard enough” that I’ve often heard out there. I think there is a difference between outright cheating and gaming the system (a very gray area), but especially in professional sports (including college sports in the US, if you are still in denial that these are not professional), where money or the potential of money is involved, there will always be an industry and people like Conte there to help athletes cash in.

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