Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Is Winning Everything?

Winning isn’t everything,
It’s the only thing
Vanderbilt and UCLA football coach

This is a famous sports quote heard by anyone who has ever participated in sports from little league to professional. It was immortalized by Vince Lombardi legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers. It is invoked by players and coaches and for many epitomizes what athletics is all about, the drive to win. For some however, it typifies what is wrong with modern athletics, to win at all costs. It is hard to be a sports fan and not be familiar with the recent doping scandals. It seems that everyone in every sport is taking some sort of performance enhancing substance to win. When pressed on his infamous remark the legendary coach Lombardi made the following statement.

In response to growing criticism surrounding the credo, Lombardi eventually came to regret the "winning is the only thing" statement and offered a repudiation, implying that what he meant to say was, “Winning is not everything - but making the effort to win is." Those sympathetic to Lombardi downplayed his use of the original quote. However, contemporaneous sources including first-hand accounts by his players and various journalists have documented Lombardi’s use of the “winning is the only thing” version.[1]

It appears that everyone from Barry Bonds to cricket players; no one has been immune to doping scandals. Why are so many of our athletes resorting to cheating to get an edge? Does this phenomenon speak to larger issues at play not only in the world of sports, but in our societies as a whole? The reason for my writing this essay is I was reading about the recent misfortunes of Marion Jones, the female track star and former Olympic gold medalists. It seems that Ms. Jones has admitted to cheating and using performance enhancing drugs during not only her Olympic career, but for most of her years on top of the track and field world.

I have to admit I have always liked Marion Jones, although I never met her she seemed to be a quiet, graceful athlete who went about her sport with dignity. She never seemed to gloat on her victories and took her defeats, even though she was always held to lofty expectations. I guess I am really not disappointed in the fact that she was using the drugs, because there had always been rumors surrounding her and drugs. The thing that bothers me is how she and other big name professional athletes take the American public to be stupid. And I for one do not like to be treated like I am stupid.

I at one time fancied myself somewhat of an athlete and played basketball in college. During my “career” I tried rigorously to train and monitor my diet. I became very intimate with my body and my capacity for pain and recuperation. I spent hours in the gym and weight room. I became so familiar with my body that I could predict and anticipate bodily changes to muscle stress and recovery. I by no means was a professional, so I find it hard to believe it when professionals say that they were given performance enhancing drugs and were not aware of it. This flies in the face of any rational or sane person even remotely familiar with the athletic process.

When you are training your body becomes a fine-tuned machine and you are aware of even the most subtle changes in it. Remember we are talking about fractions of seconds in performance; the drugs do not make a weekend warrior into a super-athlete. The drugs are used to give a superior athlete just a little extra edge to be a great athlete. The difference in winning and losing is often measured in very small increments. Barry Bonds already had the knack for hitting a baseball, the drugs didn’t give him that, what they did give him was that fraction of a second of bat speed to overcome age and superior pitching. So how an athlete can say the following and expect anyone to believe them is beyond me.

Jones had been dogged by suspicions and doping allegations for years, angrily denying all of them. On Friday, though, she told a federal judge that then-coach Trevor Graham gave her a substance that he said was flaxseed oil but was actually "the clear."

"By November 2003, I realized he was giving me performance-enhancing drugs," Jones said Friday.[2]

While I have never personally used steroids or any designer performance enhancing drugs, I have been witness to its results in the gyms. I don’t care what a person may tell you they are giving you, your body will tell you the truth by its muscle development and strength recovery. If I am taking “flaxseed oil” and my muscle development is expanding and my speed of recovery is increasing, I think I would know that there is something rotten in Denmark.

But here is the scary part, because of her acknowledgement of using the drugs her medals were taken and will be probably redistributed to other athletes. Many of the other athletes who would have benefited from her being removed from the record books have themselves been involved in doping. My fear is the message these scandals are giving our children, that in an effort to win anything is ok so long as you can get away with it. It is bad enough we have the crazy parents shooting and punching coaches who are not playing their kids, but in addition we have these so-called role models promoting cheating.

I have always thought athletics in their purest form represented the determination of the human spirit to overcome not only ones competition, but also one’s self. That the lessons learned from athletics: discipline, hard-work, and perseverance can directly translate into success in the real world. I guess I am being too naïve; why work hard when you can take shortcuts. So it is in the professional world, so it is in the athletic world. I guess winning is the only thing.


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