So, I received a slightly aggrieved message from one of my readers in response to my last blog post, “Can We Have Sports Without Cheating,” the substance of which I have taken the liberty of quoting here:
After reading your piece on performance enhancing drugs, I don’t know how you feel or how an Olympic athlete deals with trying to be at the top of her game. Does drugging piss you off? Were you ever tempted? Is there a blurry line between what is legal and illegal? How hard did you have to work to be as good as you were, and what motivated you? More please!
So, in the interest of full disclosure, here are my answers to his questions, which may mirror some of yours as well:
How does a top athlete deal with trying to be at the top of her game? For most of my rowing career, I was simply trying to get to the top of my game. I only managed that for a handful of months, and I would not call being at the top of my game enjoyable. In the fall of 1983, when I returned home from the Rowing World Championships with a bronze medal in the single sculls, I was one of the fastest scullers in the world, in fact, probably the fastest who had not used any performance enhancing substances (the women who won the gold and silver in my event were both Eastern Bloc rowers, East German and Soviet). I had eight months until the singles trials for the 1984 Olympics and I spent most of that period training really hard, which I loved, and worrying about whether I would achieve my dream of winning those trials, which I hated. Worrying is a signature trait of mine, unfortunately, and it is utterly useless at best, debilitating and distracting at worst. I discovered that I’m much more comfortable being an underdog than a top dog. Give me an impossible challenge and I’ll happily pursue it. Tell me I’m the best, and I’ll dissolve with worry about whether I can maintain my success.
Does drugging piss me off? I just think it’s stupid. As soon as you start using those kinds of enhancements, you can no longer look yourself in the mirror and know that all you’ve accomplished is due to your effort and your drive. Some measure of your accomplishment is due to a foreign substance that may help your performance in the short run, but could kill you in the long run. Not only that, external success in and of itself is just not that satisfying. Sure, it was great to stand at the podium and get medals I’d earned hung around my neck. But nothing could beat the internal satisfaction of having succeeded. All the accolades in the world don’t measure up to my private sense of accomplishment.
Was I ever tempted? NEVER.
Is there a blurry line between what is legal and what is illegal? No, it’s pretty clear. There’s a list of banned substances. Rules are rules. Yes, if you need to take a medication for certain conditions, like I did to manage my asthma, you have to know what’s allowed and what’s not. That’s what doctors are for, to figure out the details. If there’s a blurry line anywhere, it’s in your head, as you try to justify doing something that is unethical.
How hard did you have to work to be as good as you were and what motivated you? I don’t know how to answer how hard I had to work. I did whatever had to be done to accomplish my goal. Not because I had to, because I wanted to. No sacrifice involved. (In fact, I think any elite athlete who invokes that word is full of it. It is an extraordinary privilege to do what you love at the highest level. Yes, there are tradeoffs; welcome to life. If you don’t want to make the tradeoffs, don’t, but don’t complain about the sacrifices you have to make). I loved training. I loved rowing. I loved testing myself. Of course I had my bad days, when the alarm went off and I really didn’t want to get out of bed. On those days, I wouldn’t allow myself to think about anything, I would refuse to engage in any internal dialogue, just make myself sit up, get my feet on the floor, and get myself going. At some point, my desire would kick in and I’d be fine. As for what motivated me…. ah, that answer is neither short, nor sweet. My book, available next April will offer some perspective on that matter, so stay tuned.