The Olympics have long been to me an almost repellent spectacle, one that is tailor-made for the very worst of dictatorships to proclaim to the world their success and moral superiority. If such dictatorships’ athletes win a greater proportion of the medals than their proportion of the world population, then they, the dictatorships, are in some way healthy, efficient, and successful.
An editorial about the relationship between medicine and the Olympics in the New England Journal of Medicine points out that it is not, alas, only in dictatorships that such thinking is done. In 1912, after the Stockholm Olympics, the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal rejoiced in “American Supremacy,” and remarked that the “overwhelming success of the American athletes at the current Olympic games in Stockholm is as interesting physiologically as it is nationally gratifying.”
Actually, this was not quite accurate, since what the medal table showed, and very clearly, was Swedish supremacy: with only a fraction of America’s population, Sweden won more medals overall, though one gold fewer. This did not prevent the Journal from theorising about the reasons for the American supremacy, relating it to the mixture of races that allowed Americans to benefit from the various biological superiorities of each race. This is interesting, because it shows that not all racist thinking is necessarily supremacist.
Medicine has from the first had the kind of relationship with Olympic sports that non-Roman auxiliaries had to the Roman legions. When the games were resuscitated, doctors had little compunction in prescribing drugs to athletes that made them perform better, or (what is almost the same thing) made them think that they would; nowadays, of course, the full scientific panoply of toxicology is employed to detect such “cheating” and to bring down upon the heads of the athletes who employ such drugs a veritable downpour of moral outrage. Interestingly, a recent opinion piece in the British Medical Journal suggested that attempts to stop doping among athletes should be given up, first because the dopers will always be one step ahead of the dope police, and second because the distinction between the “natural” and ‘unnatural’ has so far been dissolved that it is now virtually meaningless.
Medical cytologists were called in to determine the sex of female athletes suspected in reality to be men. The careers of the infamous Press sisters of the Soviet Union, so successful at the Rome Olympics, came to a mysterious end when such tests became routine.
Physicians have questioned the safety of excessive training for more than eighty years. Early studies suggested that athletes who trained too hard could end up with dangerously hypertrophied hearts, and the question is still not fully resolved. What seems certain even on casual inspection is that athletes in particular sports may have strangely deformed bodies, for example cyclists with preternaturally huge thigh muscles.
Whether such deformations do any lasting damage is unknown, but doctors acted as advisers to the sporting authorities in the communist countries when they were determined that their young female gymnasts should dominate the sport. The activities of those doctors were ethically little better than medical participation in torture.
My own objection, however, to these deformities is different: that to devote one’s life to, say, throwing a javelin a fraction of an inch further than anyone else has ever thrown it before is a deformation of the soul. But that, of course, cannot be measured by any instrument, and not everyone will agree.
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