University of Texas professor explores cultural phenomenon of doping

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Nov. 16, 2012
  • Updated Oct. 30, 2014 at 1:32 PM EDT

Performance enhancement for the masses

When fused with public ambivalence about performance enhancing drugs, sportive nationalism creates a blind spot towards doping that makes it even more difficult to enforce anti-doping rules. Hoberman cites a study of American attitudes toward steroids in baseball showing that in 2003 two-thirds of baseball fans were either mildly concerned or completely indifferent to the fact that their baseball icons doped. This statistical evidence of our laissez-faire attitude is underscored by anecdotal evidence Hoberman witnesses with his students at the University of Texas.

“It’s a pleasure to be in there with them, but you learn something about young peoples’ attitude toward performance enhancement,” he said. “I have sensed very little deep concern about performance enhancers. The exception is that there are students who will be offended by the fact that some other students are using Adderall as a study drug. It’s cultural change, and the big question for me is whether the broader push for enhancements in society at-large is somehow just going to overwhelm the anti-doping campaign. The fact is that the anti-doping campaign is competing with an enhancement wave that has been accelerating since the 1990s.”

When combined with pharmaceutical companies’ abilites to drive demand, changing attitudes about doping in sport becomes an issue vaster and more complex than getting 22-year-old cyclists not to succumb, whether before a pro-am kermesse in the back room of a Belgian bar or with a doctor in a grand tour hotel room. Pharmaceutical companies “are operations that will stop at almost nothing to move product,” Hoberman points out. And their ability to spend vast amounts marketing directly to consumers has reframed social attitudes toward how we use drugs to improve our performance in life.

Referring to pro athlete endorsements of performance enhancing drugs like Viagra, and the public’s eager adoption of these chemicals into their lifestyles, Hoberman writes in “Testosterone Dreams” that “stars and fans alike thus share in a ritual of performance enhancement and medical redemption in which anyone can participate… such advertising weaves the ethos of performance enhancement into the fabric of everyday life and points to the social respectability of performance enhancing techniques.”

The pro sports world prohibits and rails against PEDs at the same time it endorses and promotes them. This contradiction, along with the public prohibition and demonization of certain drugs that, like marijuana, are still used voraciously in private, make public attitudes toward athletes who use drugs both conflicted and self-contradictory.

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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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