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Here's the real scandal: America has lost sight of deeper values in its obsession with self-improvement

Were you shocked (shocked!) to learn that today's athletes use performance-enhancing drugs? Because--why?--you're from another country? Planet? Galaxy? In America we believe in the principle of self-improvement, the more exaggerated the better. Whether it's government, vocabulary or erectile function, there's nothing that can't be enhanced. ¶ Look around. Our best-sellers are nearly all self-help, usually diet, but also financial, grooming, general peace of mind and who you'll meet in heaven if you read and follow these books. Our TV shows as well depend mightily on the makeover fantasy: the sudden and unbidden reconstruction of general appearance, house, family, wheels. There's even a show that features the manipulation of breast tissue in a setting other than the Super Bowl. ¶ There might have been a time when you were born with a crooked nose and you died with it. But frankly, nobody remembers when. There might also have been a time when 300-pound men roamed the earth giving early-morning weather reports, but that was before the gastric bypass. There is virtually no hand dealt that can't simply be reshuffled.

This could get a little scary--and already has, truth be told. It could mean that someday, the same genius who invents the pill to replace chemotherapy will also Pimp My Stride. Should we be surprised if the day comes when pharmaceutical companies equally tout their abilities to cure cancer and produce sprint records?

The pursuit of personal betterment is an American ideal. When Marion Jones's alleged drug calendar, with all its coded notations, was shown on network TV last Friday night I was reminded of The Great Gatsby, in which young Jay scheduled times for wall-scaling, the study of electricity and the "practice of elocution." These, as far as Jay Gatsby was concerned, were the human growth hormones of his day.

Of course, almost everybody recognizes that the practice of elocution is different from a few drops of a designer steroid called "the clear." One of them is considered cheating, right? Jason Giambi could not have been confused about major league baseball's rules prohibiting steroids, and he's going to pay the price. Others will too.

But for men and women of truly outsized ambition and vanity, the American hero in other words, the rules of play will always feel a little ... flexible. Character is sometimes neglected in the pursuit of perfection, which has now been complicated by chemical opportunity. It's probably hard to feel guilty, winning a gold medal on EPO, when you're pursued by similarly juiced contenders. Let's put it another way: WWBD (What Would the Babe Do?)

If you choose to be surprised or outraged by these athletes, then you must ignore both human nature and the pharmaceutical frontier that's upon us. We might agree, for now, that the use of human growth hormone is evil, at the very least because it can be deadly. The prospect of high schoolers emulating Giambi is frightening, and real. The day will come, however, when performance additives will be as safe as Flintstones vitamins and judged no more advantageous than access to proper coaching, good training facilities or Lasik surgery.

The instinct for self-improvement, the sort of selfishness that generates discovery and achievement (and occasional scandal), will always confound us, even as it tempts and delights us. We can rail, demand more testing and punishment. But this genie's out of the bottle. Just remember, next time you're pondering the atomic composition of a sprinter as he whisks down the straightaway (he's going pretty fast now, isn't he!): It's not our nature to stand still.




Giambi and Bonds (as '02 All-Stars) bought into the makeover myth.