Not so strong: Lance Armstrong apologises for taking performance-enhancing drugs in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, January 2013. Photo: Getty
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After the beep: when mental strength hits a wall, doping helps you get over it

The relentless professional era has taken elements of the beep test and incorporated these into real sports, even disciplines we usually think of as “skill” sports.

When the Tour de France rolled into London, I was watching BBC4’s film Stop at Nothing, about Lance Armstrong. It was unnerving to hear the original television commentary on the rider’s victories. Moral abstract nouns were commonplace: celebrations of Armstrong’s determination, his strength of character, desire, guts and hunger. All present. None relevant. The critical factor was his pioneering use of drugs.

This fallacy – confusing physical strengths (whether legitimate or illegal) with moral attributes – is commonplace in sport. And watching the Armstrong film underlined the importance of trying to distinguish between the two, even when it leads to uncomfortable conclusions.

I should know better. During my cricketing days, a few times every season I had to complete a fitness exercise called the “beep test”. This consists of a recorded series of beeps, with the interval between each pair gradually reducing. You have to run 20 metres before the next beep, then turn and run another 20 metres – and so on. The test begins at a slow jog and ends at a sprint. When you miss a beep, you have to drop out. The test is described as “maximal and progressive”. Translation: it gets steadily worse, until the point where you break.

I’ve done dozens of beep tests and heard many team-mates say just before the start, “It’s really all about having a strong mind.” But it isn’t; indeed, it cannot be. A strong mind takes you to your physical limit – and no further. The beep test is explicitly designed to find your physical breaking point, whatever that may be.

I eventually learned, in fact, that the exercise revealed the primacy of straightforward lung capacity. The test measures physical fitness exclusively. The pain you feel at the moment of dropping out is always the same: what differs is how far your body has taken you before that happens.

The relentless professional era has taken elements of the beep test and incorporated these into real sports, even disciplines we usually think of as “skill” sports. For instance, a highly committed football team will now “press” – maintain a collective defensive hounding of opposition players – as much as it can. (It is worth noting that some former players from the 1960s and 1970s teams that pioneered pressing have admitted that they were fuelled by performance-enhancing drugs.)

All teams, if they are rational, stop pressing at the point where the tactic makes them so exhausted that they become more vulnerable to conceding a goal. So, effective pressing, much in evidence at the World Cup in Brazil, is a question of physical capacity as well as commitment. If you aren’t fit enough, it becomes impossible.

That is good example of how sport evolves. Elite sport is now so demanding that players often operate near or at their physical capacity. Put differently, we wildly exaggerate the extent to which top players can just try harder. Yet this truth has not yet trickled down into the language of sports analysis. When we notice a vast disparity in energy between two apparently well-matched teams, it is very tempting to fall back on a moral explanation. One team “wants it more”, has more “urgency” or a greater depth of “passion and commitment”. Moral superiority becomes the dominant causal narrative.

But in sports where fitness has central importance (increasingly, nearly every sport) it is more common that one side is physically superior. There has never been any evidence to support the cliché that “at the highest level” the difference is “usually in the mind”. Indeed, I suspect the opposite: at the highest level, given the mental strength of champion athletes, the difference is more likely to be in the body. Both teams are trying equally hard, but one is inevitably stronger than the other.

Here my logic takes an uncomfortable turn. All this explains why performance-enhancing drugs have become so widespread in professional sport. As we approach the outer wall of human physical capacity, improving skill becomes incredibly difficult. So, too, does improving concentration and fitness through conventional hard work.

In that context, sadly, the easiest way to get better is to cheat by taking drugs. That has long been the case in sports – such as cycling and athletics – which are obviously based on physical supremacy. Other sports are now catching up, if that is the right term. It is becoming harder than ever to find “the edge” legally.

There is a paradox here: in an era of widespread drug use, teams and individuals derided for their moral failure may, in fact, be morally superior – by refusing to cheat, they give the appearance of lacking urgency, commitment and hunger. After all, a sporting contest is always relative. Even the most sluggish national football team would look pretty snappy playing against a bunch of random friends on the beach. So there is a double injustice: by taking performance-enhancing drugs, sportsmen not only win unfairly, but also create the illusion that their rivals are not trying.

Why write this now? The World Cup has been widely described as a celebration of Latin American joie de vivre. That is an attractive idea. And it may be true. Yet it is also possible that some teams, which seemed to be playing with the manic abandon of total desire, were in fact simply benefiting from physical advantages.

More than once during this World Cup I have sensed a team playing with almost superhuman levels of energy. That instinct does not prove anything, but it unavoidably raises the alarm. I hope I’m wrong.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.