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)