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University of Texas professor explores cultural phenomenon of doping

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Nov. 16, 2012

Sportive nationalism

While Hoberman’s thesis that Armstrong was in fact cheating SCA out of its $5 million ultimately proved true, the subject of the professor’s studies are larger than Armstrong. America’s erstwhile greatest cyclist is merely symptomatic of larger cultural delusions and political machinations that inform our collective attitudes toward doping in pro sports and everyday life.

The theme of sportive nationalism — the use of athletes to project national pride, power, and vitality — runs through most of Hoberman’s writings. During the Cold War, doping was a way for nations on both sides of the East/West divide to prove themselves through medal hauls at Olympic and international competitions. This created a dynamic where nationalist goals conflicted with anti-doping morals. In “Testosterone Dreams,” Hoberman writes that “government sponsorship of elite athletes therefore requires a delicate balancing act: it must promote national competitiveness while supporting, or appearing to support, the campaign against performance enhancing drugs.” He asks, “are they nationalists bent on athletic glory or regulatory internationalists bent on effective regulation of doping in sport?”

Though the Cold War is over, Hoberman says sportive nationalism continues to make it difficult to execute international anti-doping rules,

“What I see is an unbroken tradition of sportive nationalism that continues to this day,” he said. “Just because you are not pursuing sportive nationalism in the context of the Cold War does not mean that politicians are not going to want to see those points on the board.”

The Festina Affair precipitated the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency. As Hoberman writes, “The French government’s decision to unleash the power of state prosecutors — who brought criminal charges against athletes, managers, and physicians — produced an upheaval that forced the IOC into an anti-doping partnership with governmental agencies.”

WADA’s foundation in January 2000 has led to parallel contests where countries compete both for athletic excellence and anti-doping showmanship.

“There is a simultaneous competition to demonstrate, or at least give the impression, that one is a loyal member of WADA,” Hoberman told VeloNews. “The medals competition is now quite seriously being accompanied by a ‘who can produce the best ostensibly drug-free show.’”

As an example of the heights this theater can reach, Hoberman points out that Alexander Lukashenko, the nefarious Belarussian dictator that recently fired his country’s sports minister and deputy for only delivering 12 gold medals in London, “issued a ringing declaration that his athletes were going to be clean.” Belarussian shotputter Nadzeya Ostapchuk lost her London gold medal after testing positive for steroids.

“The scum of the earth can play that game,” said Hoberman. “I mean, he is a criminal. And when Lukashenko comes out beating his breast over what a great anti-doper he is, it’s obvious that this is a political game that is running parallel with and attached to the traditional sportive nationalism.”

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Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson

Writer-photographer Mark Johnson's work has been published in titles including VeloNews in the United States, Cycling Weekly in the UK, Vélo in France, and Ride Cycling Review in Australia as well as general-interest publications including The Wall Street Journal and the San Diego Union-Tribune. His book on the Garmin pro team, Argyle Armada, was published by VeloPress in 2012. A Cat. 2 road cyclist, Mark has bicycled across the United States twice and completed an Ironman triathlon. He graduated from UC San Diego and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University. His other passion is surfing, which he does frequently from his home in Del Mar, California. Follow him on Twitter @ironstringmark.

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