WASHINGTON -- Leave it to the good people of Philadelphia, whose football fans once famously booed and threw snowballs at Santa Claus, to come up with the perfect takedown of the most inflated (in more ways than one) superstar in contemporary sport. With the visiting Barry Bonds at the plate and needing just two home runs to tie Babe Ruth's iconic 714 lifetime homers, the banner was raised: "Ruth did it on hot dogs & beer.''
The target of this concise discourse on the roots of greatness has been booed lustily in every Major League city he's played in outside his hometown of San Francisco. The fans' displeasure lies in Bonds' alleged use of steroids. The use of "alleged'' here, though mandatory, is forced and legalistic. After all, Bonds has admitted that he used "the clear'' and "the cream,'' substances he claims he thought were flaxseed oil and some kind of emollient, only later to discover that they were actually steroids.
The idea that an athlete of Bonds' stature, for whom the body is both temple and bank vault, would be mistakenly ingesting substances is implausible, made all the more so by the evidence dredged up by two San Francisco sportswriters detailing Bonds' (alleged) gargantuan consumption of every performance-enhancing drug from steroids to human growth hormone.
But why should we care? What is really wrong with performance enhancement? We say we are against it because it diminishes striving, devalues achievement, produces a shortcut to greatness, etc. But in many endeavors we don't really care about any of that. Medical residents at hospitals have been known to take Ritalin to keep themselves alert on overnight shifts. If it enhances their thinking in the emergency room, what's the objection?
Many public speakers, performers and even some surgeons take beta blockers to literally still their hearts and steady their hands. I've never seen a banner at the opera complaining: "Pavarotti does it on pasta.'' And what about the military, which pioneered some of these performance-enhancing studies to see how they could help soldiers survive the most extreme stresses? Isn't that an unqualified good?
Performance enhancement turns out to be disturbing only in the narrow context of competition, most commonly in sports. And the objection is not cheating nature, but cheating competitors. It's basically a fairness issue.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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