Mind games, performance enhancers and the huddle

Amit Varma

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Monday, August 9, 2004

9.50pm IST - The Pepsi Muddle

A few days ago I had blogged about the fact that the Indian team's huddle is now sponsored by Pepsi, and is called The Pepsi Huddle. Well, Sambit Bal, my editor, raised a fine point today when he said that Coke should be pissed off about it, because Virender Sehwag, who endorses Coke, is effectively being co-opted by Pepsi when he joins the huddle. This is a delightful line of thinking - do you think Coke can now instruct Sehwag not to huddle with the team?

Maybe Coke should just sponsor some other aspect of the game, so they can co-opt any player who endorses Pepsi. What about a Coke Appeal? Do you think Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar would think twice before appealing then?

5.40pm - The thin line between performance enhancement and performance-enhancing drugs

I received quite a few irate emails after my posts discussing the use of gene therapy in sport ("Towards a posthuman sport, or a better world?" and "Current players v past players, and gene doping"), with a number of people upset that I was seemingly condoning it. Atanu Neogi and Mrs Wraye Wenigmann both wrote that gene therapy was acceptable in the context of medicine, but not in that of sport. Mrs Wenigmann evokes a future where Clones A play Clones B, and Atanu echoes Francis Fukuyama, and says, "if we take gene therapy to its extreme possibilities, we are going to eventually cross that human boundary".

I think both of them overstate the issue, and overestimate the implications of gene therapy. We can caricature any scientific advancement and make it seem dangerous to us - artificial intelligence will lead to robots taking us over; cloning will bring about a human race without individuality; GPRS systems will make sure that Big Brother watches us all the time. I've already expressed my optimism about technology in my previous posts, so I won't repeat myself, but I will point out that luddites of every generation are invariably proved wrong.

Also, gene therapy won't exactly lead to humans becoming the Incredible Hulk (much as I would like to be green) - there is a limit to how much we can enhance our muscles and our endurance thus, just as there is a (lesser) limit on how we can achieve these objectives with training and nutrition.

The Economist, in an excellent article in their latest issue, go over some of the same questions I had raised last week. They write:

[I]s not part of the spirit of sport the pursuit of ever greater performance? Athletes do all sorts of things to improve their performance, to give them an edge, including things with similar physiological effects to steroids: training at high altitude, or spending long hours in an altitude chamber (as the iconic soccer star David Beckham did to accelerate the healing of a broken bone before the 2002 World Cup) do much the same as using EPO. If the rules were changed to allow, say, non-harmful performance-enhancing drugs--something that Juan Antonio Samaranch, then head of the International Olympic Committee, once caused outrage by advocating--then surely (that sort of) doping would no longer be cheating.

Lincoln Allison, in an essay in The Guardian, argues that our opposition to doping in sport is misguided. He writes, "Forty years ago, we applied rules on amateurism to top-class athletes. By the end of this century, our current official stance against drugs in sport will look every bit as risible." Allison takes the extreme position that sportspeople should be allowed to dope, and he argues against the belief that doping is wrong because it is harmful to dopers.

The appendix to the orthodox view is that people must be protected from performance-enhancing drugs because they are damaging to health ... But we know that many performers know the risks and are prepared to take them. It is also true (and rarely mentioned) that often the risk is slight and that sometimes there is an overall benefit to health. (As a 57-year-old athlete, I take anti-inflammatories that are probably on the banned list.) In general, the risk to health from performance-enhancing drugs is considerably less than that from tobacco or alcohol, and we ought not to apply paternalistic moral assumptions to sport that we are not prepared to apply to the rest of life.

I feel instinctively outraged when a sportsperson is caught doping, because I believe in a level-playing field. But are those instincts correct? In the case of gene therapy, especially, it is difficult to argue that we should have recourse to it for medical or cosmetic reasons, but not for sporting purposes. It is easy to condemn Ben Johnson for taking Stanozolol at the 1988 Olympics, but in the light of recent disclosures that his contemporaries might also have doped, is it not possible that he was just the shmuck who got caught?

To quote from another Economist article, "[M]uch of this debate may be academic if WADA [World Anti-Doping agency] fails to create tests to spot the use of gene therapy. Watch out for a surge in world-record breaking in the 2012 Olympics." The most urgent question in the world of sport of today is not whether doping is wrong and should be punished, but whether it can be detected. A negative answer to the second question makes the first irrelevant.

4.00pm - Debating Twenty20 cricket

The Twenty20 Cup came to a conclusion this weekend, with Leicestershire beating Surrey in the final after disposing of Glamorgan in the semi-final. The cricket was exciting, and so was the commerce - Twenty20 cricket has been so successful since its introduction last year that it has become a focus area for the ECB.

Paul Weaver, in a piece in The Guardian, quoted David Morgan, the ECB's chairman, as calling it "a growth product", like a bodybuilder at a gym discussing the latest steroid. "We have brought in a new audience," he says. "The crowds are up on last year even though the weather has been less good." Other countries are learning from England's experience - South Africa and Pakistan are also holding domestic Twenty20 competitions, and Sri Lanka recently announced their plans to follow suit. Twenty20 cricket has already been experimented with at the international level in women's cricket, and the men are right behind, with New Zealand and Australia due to play a Twenty20 international early next year, and England and Australia to play one next summer.

In an earlier post ("Twenty20 to the rescue?"), I had mused on the possibility that Twenty20 cricket might play a big part in both reviving and globalising the game, and presented the point of view that it contained quite as much in terms of drama and quality of cricket as, say, 50-over cricket did. Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, my colleague, disagrees. In a mail to me, he wrote:

I think it [Twenty20 cricket] is a one-dimensional game. Andrew's argument about it not being only for the sloggers is slightly skewed. All those batsmen who do well in Twenty20 (Ian Harvey, Andrew Symonds etc) might have a place in 50-over cricket, but the converse just can't happen. A Michael Bevan (definitely one of the all-time greats in ODIs) may not even make it to a Twenty20 team. Middle-over manipulation, [the] timing of an innings and a shrewd eye for acceleration are three of the most fascinating aspects of the one-day game. All three are absent in Twenty20 [cricket]. Matches where teams come from the dead can never happen, because it is so short.

Well, I think that Michael Bevan would rock in Twenty20 cricket, and I think that while the drama of a Twenty20 game might mainfest itself in different ways than in the longer form of the game, it is no less gripping. Simon Briggs describes, in his excellent report of the three matches on Saturday, how it "featured more mind games than the annual convention of Mensa". He describes how Brad Hodge and Jeremy Snape "hatched an ingenious plot to win the trophy", and outwitted Adam Holliaoke, no mean strategist himself. Briggs concludes:

Twenty20 cricket demands a deceptively thoughtful approach. Batsmen are forced to be pre-emptive (something players from countries with more vibrant 50-over competitions have already learned, judging by the dominance of the overseas brigade). And the most effective hitters leave room for late adjustment.

Will Twenty20 cricket continue to thrive? I believe it will, though I don't believe, as my colleague Andrew Miller recently argued, that it will replace 50-over cricket. Twenty20 cricket, the 50-over game and Test cricket are almost different sports, requiring different kinds of skills, containing different kinds of drama, and involving different kinds of viewers. Just as one-dayers enriched Test cricket instead of threatening it, Twenty20 cricket will just add to our experience of watching the game. I can't wait for the first World Championship of Twenty20 cricket.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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