net.wars: Morality plays

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 13 August 2004

"Anything worth having is worth cheating for," the Australian columnist Derryn Hinch observed in his book on how to play Scrabble. (It's a very good book, by the way, for anyone who wants to ensure they are completely unfit to play Scrabble socially ever again.)

Wendy M Grossman

So the Olympics are upon us, and with them doping allegations, rebuttals, more allegations, and conspiracy theories. Sample: athlete who's had a knee injury that caused her to withdraw from two events in the last few weeks announces her withdrawal from the Olympic games. Immediate Net reaction: suspicion. Didn't the president of the World Anti-Doping Association just announce that a test to detect human growth hormone would be used at the Games? Aren't these two things connected? Aha!

As anyone who's read Willy Voet's Breaking the Chain knows, drugs testing is an arms race, with the science of doping usually way ahead. I predicted ten years ago there would be drugs specifically designed to evade testing, and the ramifications of the discovery of the first such are still being seen. The only reason there is a test for THG, the drug that Balco is alleged to have made available to athletes, is that the anti-doping authorities were tipped off by a coach who sent in a syringe with a tiny sample of the drug inside it. Without that, there would be no test for this drug, and athletes using it would test "clean". The extensive list of banned substances, of course, includes a catch-all for drugs that haven't been discovered yet; the list also includes drugs for which they don't have reliable tests yet

Both Scientific American and Discover last month ran articles on the next step toward untraceability: gene-doping. There seems no way out of this. The same competitive fires that make people want to win at sports or see their children have better lives than they had make people want to do anything they can to enhance their chances. We feed the problem by rewarding the guy who runs the fastest with worldwide glory and massive wealth while dubbing the guy who runs .0000001 seconds slower a loser. But let's face it: sports are a business, and everyone in business is always seeking a competitive advantage. Does anyone believe in the "pure" ideal of sports any more?

The answer so far has been more and more drug testing, and more and more surveillance of athletes. It's like being a candidate for US president and knowing you'll have to deal with media scrutiny of even the tiniest things you've done in your life. Who would choose to be a professional athlete knowing you could be woken up at 6am at any time by a goon demanding a urine sample? Athletes have no presumption of innocence; you are only as innocent as your last drug test. And with, increasingly, samples being frozen for later retesting as new detection technologies become available, we can ritually humiliate a sports star at any time. Increasingly, punishing athletes who betray "purity" is society's revenge on them for being such world-class, astonishing talents in the first place.

At least this time non-US viewers will be able to see all this stuff live on the Web, which has long seemed the ideal medium to allow niche sports to reach their fans. In the UK, the BBC will be webcasting over five video channels. It's not clear how much this will duplicate existing traditional TV and radio coverage, but it's a good step. Until now, no video has been allowed on the Net (at least from official sources) because of the International Olympic Committee's fear of upsetting its largest buyer of broadcast rights, the US's NBC network, which is paying $793 million. The BBC, like other international broadcasters streaming live video, has a system in place to verify the geographical origin of those connecting to it; and you must have broadband. No cheating over international dial-up, which of course is now cheap enough to be a real threat, although Slashdot is discussing the possibilities of proxy servers.

American viewers are the ones who are going to get shafted. NBC likes to show the biggest events in prime time, when viewers are home, so much of the Olympic coverage will be, as it has been in past years, tape-delayed. Americans who can produce a Visa card to identify themselves can access some even more delayed footage from NBC after the broadcasts have taken place. Fun, isn't it? I only follow one sport (and that one, tennis, will get much more coverage after the Games end when the US Open begins), but the howls from fans of other sports can already be heard. You really have to wonder when NBC's executives will stop living in their tape-delayed time-warp where it's still 1980 and they were in total control of what information reached viewers. Here in 2004, everyone has live scores, moblogs, tiny digital cameras, and access to the news wires. A US athlete could be disqualified after failing a drugs text while NBC is still editing its highlights and trailing the athlete as a top contender.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).