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Of Insects and Athletes

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Gilbert Ford

It is a pretty special summer that has both periodical cicadas and the Olympics. What connects them — if only in my mind — is that each is annoying. Of the two, the cicadas have my greatest sympathy. They sleep 17 years, awake with what must be a terrible case of bug breath and singles bar-size libidos, and mate furiously (if not always appropriately, as in the sad case of one who mistook my car for a voluptuous, if unresponsive, lover). Then they die, having produced enough little cicadas to ensure another cycle guaranteed to annoy humans and please certain species of birds and fish. Irritating as cicadas can be, their fate strikes me as pathetic, even by bug standards. That's where the sympathy comes in.

The Olympics are something quite different. What annoys me about the games is not the events, some of which are riveting, or even the press coverage, saccharine as it can be. It is the hypocrisy the Olympics inspires, monumental in scale even by presidential election year standards.

We stand, however, at a historic moment in Olympic hypocrisy. The end of the Cold War meant the passing of an old form of it, and we are witness to the rise of a new one.

Before the fall of the Berlin wall, the dominant mode of American hypocrisy went something like this. Public position: The games are really about peaceful competition and about how sports can bring together the people of the world. Coded message: The games are about the superiority of our way of life, and besides that, their athletes are really professionals, not pure amateurs like ours, and those East German women look a lot like men.

Here is the new hypocrisy. Public position: The games really should be about fair competition, but they are being ruined, not by the presence of professional athletes — otherwise we couldn't win in basketball — but rather by the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

What, you might wonder, is hypocritical about that? I'll refer to that great source of insight into the American people's collective hopes, dreams, aspirations, insecurities, vanity, and greed: television commercials. A whole lot of them sure are about performance enhancement, otherwise, why should we ask our doctors if such-and-such a drug is right for us?

Among the current crop of ads is one that promises enough energy to play 18 holes of golf instead of nine. Sounds like performance enhancement to me. Another revolves around the conceit that a common over-the-counter item is what keeps the Old Faithful geyser "regular" so it can do the same for you. (I'm not sure you want to think too deeply about that one.) Yet another series of commercials features the testimonies of athletes whose off-field performance appears to have declined, although one local hero continues to hit "home runs."

My favorite, however, is an ad that features ordinary looking guys leaping in the air like idiots, while "We Are the Champions" plays in the background. I love it because, like any great work of art, it has depth, complexity, and irony. Surely those who produced it must have known that the lead singer on that song was gay and died of AIDS. We also do not learn what Mrs. Champion thinks about the enhancing and to whom it applied. Another commercial provides a partial answer, in which Mrs. Champion testifies to the benefits of the performance-enhancing drug, which leaves open the question of what a miserable specimen of humanity her mate was before he took it. There is a problem here.

Maybe the solution in dealing with performance-enhancing drugs is simply to go back to a distinction made by the 1950s-era comedian and social critic Lenny Bruce, who discussed narcotics in terms of friendly and unfriendly ones. (The latter killed him.) Good performance-enhancing drugs enable guys to jump in the air like idiots while "We Are the Champions" plays in the background. Bad performance-enhancing drugs enable guys in shorts to jump higher over a fancy saw horse.

Or could it really be that simple? Maybe we need more categories besides non-enhanced and enhanced. One — which is both reasonably honest and probably where many top athletes belong — would be enhanced but OK because we think special training facilities, vitamins, and certain medications are all right, and they don't show up in drug tests. A final new category might be performances that really shouldn't be enhanced under any circumstances: Think cicadas.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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