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Life Lessons

Why surgery and not steroids?

Alex Rodriguez gets booed in every ballpark, including his own.

Tommy John, on the other hand, has a surgical procedure named after him.

What’s the difference? That’s the interesting question posed by author Malcolm Gladwell in this New Yorker article.

Says Gladwell, “Maybe Alex Rodriguez looks at Tommy John — and at the fact that at least a third of current major-league pitchers have had the same surgery — and is genuinely baffled about why baseball has drawn a bright moral line between the performance-enhancing products of modern endocrinology and those offered by orthopedics.”

This is not to advocate the use of drugs; I am merely intriqued by people like Gladwell who develop a different way of looking at things. And it certainly isn’t a criticism of John or the doctors who developed a revolutionary way to treat arm damage.

Gladwell’s article goes far beyond John and Rodriguez, extending to the cosmic question of whether there ever can be a truly equal playing field in sports.

He points to Eero Mäntyrant, a Finn with sixty-five per cent more red blood cells than the normal adult male. This unique physiology helped him win seven Olympic cross-country medals.

Gladwell covers an exotic range from Kenyans with skinny calves and ankles to Americans whose I.Q. depends in part on the amount of iodine in their part of the country.

Citing the work of David Epstein, author of “The Sports Gene,” Gladwell boils down Rodriguez and John and baseball players who get eye surgery to one uncomfortable comparison. “Tendon-replacement surgery,” writes Gladwell, “is similar to laser surgery: it turns the athlete into an improved version of his natural self.”

As do steroids?

Gladwell provides a detailed look at the doping that brought disgrace to cyclist Lance Armstrong. In the end, he recasts the drug narrative.

“It is a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference,” Gladwell writes. “(Armstrong’s former teammate Tyler) Hamilton and Armstrong may simply be athletes who regard this kind of achievement as worthier than the gold medals of a man with the dumb luck to be born with a random genetic mutation.”

I recall covering the Soviet hockey team on one of their stops in North America in the 1970s. They drank garlic tea.

Suppose we were to learn that somewhere in that concoction was something that gave an incredible advantage? Would it not be like having enough red blood cells to blow away the competition in cross-country skiing?

Where, indeed, is the line between cheating and simply creating an improved version of yourself?


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