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Current players v past players, and gene doping

There is a strong argument that standards of excellence have risen in just about every single department of every single sport

Amit Varma
Click here for the first post on this topic, or scroll to the bottom
Tuesday, July 27, 2004
5.18 IST
Pete Bradshaw and Raghu Chandran write in, separately, making the same point: that today's sportsmen, because the standard of sports in general have risen so much, have to resort to doping to play at the highest level. Pete mentions Lance Armstrong and the allegations of EPO use that have dogged his career, and cycling in general. I'd prefer to think of Armstrong as clean until proved otherwise, but drugs is not necessarily new to cycling, the most gruelling of sports. Jacques Anquetil, who won the Tour de France five times in the 60s, once said, in the context of doping, "Do they expect us to ride up these mountains on mineral water?"
But is doping relevant to more skill-based sports like cricket? I believe it is, though perhaps not to the same extent as in more physical sports. An increase in stamina can help both bowlers and batsmen do their things for much longer; added strength is useful to fast bowlers, who put tremendous strain on their bodies anyway, and the more sloggacious of batsmen. These are no replacements for skill, but can supplement it, and prolong one's career.
But drugs can, as of now, be detected by rigorous testing - though the authorities struggle to keep up with dopers, who always seem to be one step ahead. But that may be changing. Check out this cover story in the July issue of Scientific American; it talks of how sportsmen can develop targeted muscles by gene therapy, and of how such therapy might be undetectable.
A fast bowler could, thus, build abnormally powerful fast-twitch muscles (the relevant muscles for his craft), as well as the supporting infrastructure of his body, and go beyond the limits of our species in terms of performance (for example, bowl at 110mph, while around 100mph seems to be the upper limit so far). Barring the unlikely event of a muscle biopsy, he would never be caught. And allegations would shadow even innocent athletes who happened to be exceptionally talented.
Such misuse would take relatively long to reach cricket, where skill is at a greater premium, but sports like cycling, atheletics and most of the other athletic sports could be transformed. H Lee Sweeney, who wrote that Scientific American article, says, "the world may be about to watch one of its last Olympic Games without genetically enhanced athletes".
But doesn't doping put in human hands what is otherwise left to chance?
One of the picture-captions from that article says:
Eero Mäntyranta won two Olympic gold medals in 1964. Years later scientists found the source of the Finnish cross-country skier's endurance. A genetic mutation gave his family higher than normal levels of oxygen-carrying red blood cells--higher even than could be achieved with EPO.
This brings up an issue that I've often wondered about. Great sportsmen are often born with some incredible talent that is a product of luck (ie, some genetic mutation or the other), though they do have to work hard, of course, to make this talent pay off. My question is: rather than leave sporting excellence to chance, what is wrong with engineering those genetic mutations ourselves, and taking our destiny into our own hands?
Think about it - it's an important philosophical question that has relevance to more than just the sporting arena, and there are no easy answers to it.
Bob Nolan writes in from Sydney and says, "I read your exchange with Jay [the post below] with interest. I couldn't agree with you more that Don Bradman is beyond comparison as long as our parameters relate to sport. But Sachin Tendulkar contends with far more, in terms of media attention and public adulation, than Bradman ever did. He plays quite a different ballgame altogether."
Good point. Joe Lindsey, who has been writing lively and insightful columns on the Tour de France over the last couple of weeks, wrote a piece evaluating Armstrong's place in the game's history where he said:
[Armstrong] has transformed sport by transcending it; his legacy now goes so far outside of cycling, outside of sport that one has to go back to Muhammad Ali to find a similar impact. Not even Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, who arguably had a broader reach, have one this deep.
Armstrong is not unique in this regard. Woods is a role model for young black Americans, David Beckham and Sachin Tendulkar are mega-brands in their respective markets, and, in our celebrity-obsessed age, every successful sportsman, to some extent and in some manner, transcends his sport. (In fact, I just did a google-search for "transcends the sport", and got 623 matches, and "transcend the sport" got me 211 matches, including for Mike Tyson and a horse called Best Mate. Coming to think of it, it's become a bit of a cliché for sports journalists.)
However, I'm not sure if the pressures a sportsman faces outside the field of cricket should be considered while evaluating his worth as a sportsman. We can talk of Shane Warne the cricketer only on the basis of what he does on the cricket field. (We can, of course, take other things into account while talking of Shane Warne the role model, though I think that's a bit hard on the fellow, as he set out to become a cricketer and not a role model. We cannot always expect people to excel in roles that are thrust upon them.)
The jury's standing on the porch now. It's raining outside.
Jay Acharya writes in, and revives that hoary old comparison between Don Bradman and Sachin Tendulkar. He says, "cricket in those [Bradman's] days was hardly competitive and the only series in which the Don was seriously challenged was the Bodyline [series]." He goes on to say that Bradman did not have to content with captains planning strategies specifically to counter him, and he benefited from rarely having to score against defensive field placings, as Tendulkar has so often. He concludes, "maybe the Don is better than Sachin but probably only marginally and I believe that had he played in the era in which Sachin is playing his average would have been hovering around the 60-mark rather than the late nineties."
I disagree, Jay. The reason Bradman is eulogised is not merely because his average is high, but because he outsrips his contemporaries by such a huge margin. I've just examined the average batting averages (love that phrase!) through the decades, and found that batsmen in the 30s and 40s, when Bradman played, averaged 31.1 and 34.2 respectively, while batsmen in the 90s and 2000s, Tendulkar's era, average 29.4 and 31.4 respectively. The contemporaries of Bradman and Tendulkar, thus, averaged more or less the same - Bradman, however, outstripped them comprehensively, and stands almost 40 points clear of his nearest contemporary. Tendulkar, on the other hand, stands at No. 8 on the latest PWC Ratings, and doesn't even have the highest average in the Indian team.
I don't mean to disrespect Tendulkar, he is one of the great batting geniuses of our times, and his career can only be properly evaluated once it is over; but comparing him with Bradman, as too many Indian fans tend to do, is ridiculous. (This does not mean, by the way, that I believe that current sportsmen are not as good as those of the past; Bradman was an aberration, and we might never see such domination again in cricket.)
One of the first mails I received after I made my first post on 23 Yards (`Is there a crisis in cricket?') was from Prashant Gulati, who did not react to what I had written but went off on an intriguing tangent. He wrote:
In an interesting conversation with a friend the other day while we watched the Tour De France, I spoke about the alarming fact that so many sporting greats are either in action now, or have been in action after I was born. I refused to believe that Lance Armstrong was the best cyclist ever, sometimes shudder to think that I've actually witnessed Michael Jordan games on TV with my own eyes. And what about Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa? The list is endless. I sometimes find it hard to believe, [and I] can't really get the feeling of awe [when I] read journals of players in the 1800s or early 1900s, [and read about them] being the best ever. I simply can't, because the best ever are playing right now. They're all still playing or just retired a few years ago. So I can only experience nostalgia, not awe.
Prashant then riffs a bit about how the modern game is so good (perhaps inspired by the link I gave to Tim de Lisle's column on the same subject), and ends by suggesting that I base a future post around the topic, "Just how good are today's greats?" So here we go, Prashant, and thank you.
So is ____ the greatest ever?
There have been a rash of "greatest ever" debates in recent times (as opposed to "greatest", which I'm guessing might not be good enough). Over the last few years, Michael Schumacher and Lance Armstrong and Valentino Rossi and the Australian cricket team have all achieved statistical landmarks and broken records in their sport that were once thought unattainable. Is Schumacher the best Formula 1 driver ever? Is Armstrong really better than Eddie Merckx? Will Tiger Woods surpass Jack Nicklaus's feats?
The obvious answer is that there is no basis for comparison. How can we compare Walter Hammond, who played in the days of uncovered pitches, no helmets and the back-foot no-ball rule, with Rahul Dravid, who plays in an ultra-competitive professional age of coaches with laptops, fitness regimes, savvier field-placings (with customised attention from the opposition) and a far greater emphasis on fitness? It is almost as if Hammond and Dravid played two entirely different sports, and comparing them seems as silly as, say, comparing Joe DiMaggio and Don Bradman.
As William Fotheringham wrote about Armstrong, "To call him the greatest cyclist ever would be like saying Michael Schumacher is a greater driver than Juan-Manuel Fangio. Like Schumacher, he is a creature of his time, 'a charismatic leader who has the best means available at his disposal,' as Alain Prost said." (So now I'm quoting Fotheringham quoting Prost, and if any of you start quoting me, one nice relay we can start.)
The evidence from baseball
Baseball is a particularly good sport to look at in this context. There have been virtually no rule-changes in baseball for more than a century now, barring occasional fiddling around with the height of the pitcher's mound and the strike zone. That makes it seemingly easy to compare achievements from 50 years ago to those of today - something that is somewhat difficult to do in cricket.
Now look at the frequency with which hitters have averaged .400 through a season (a benchmark for hitting excellence). As you'll from this list, 35 times between 1887 and 1941, and then, never again. Nostalgiacs, as I call them, would use that to argue that hitting has actually declined as an art in baseball, which has been a fairly common theme in much baseball literature over the years. (Ted Williams, the last man to break the .400 barrier, in 1941, said in The Science of Hitting, his classic primer: "After 50 years of watching it [baseball], I'm more convinced than ever that there aren't as many good hitters in the game.")
Stephen Jay Gould, however, argued in Full House (published as Life's Grandeur in the UK) that there has actually been an overall increase in excellence in every department of the game. The fact that mean batting averages have remained the same through the years indicates that the equilibrium between pitchers and hitters have been maintained. But standards have gone so high in fielding and pitching, that to go far enough beyond that equilibrium to reach .400 is virtually impossible.
Gould postulates a number of factors for the general improvement in the game, and they are relevant to pretty much every other sport as well. One, there are larger pools of players available to the sport, and not only do greater numbers of people play it, they also get a higher quality of training. Two, physically, humans have gotten bigger over the last century, and so has the average sportsman - and size and strength are a factor in any sport, even skill-based ones. (Click here to see a table of how baseball players have gotten bigger over the decades; I don't think we'd have such statistics for cricket, but if we did, I'm sure they'd show the same trend.)
Gould also points out that in every single sport that measures absolute performance rather than relative performance, (a sprinter's performance, for example, is not relative to someone else's, as a batsman's is in cricket), performances have consistently improved over time. It is fair to assume that sporting performances in relative sports also improve, though the equilibrium within them might show little variation.
In addition to all of that, standards of fitness and coaching have reached new (computer-aided) levels, and equipment has become better over time, with powerful graphite rackets in tennis, bigger bats in cricket, wider gloves for fielders in baseball, aerodynamic bodysuits and helmets in cycling, and so on. But that improvement is spread across the sport, and raises the overall level of the game, which makes it that much harder for the individual sportsman to excel. Are Armstrong, Woods, Schumacher and the Australian cricket team the greatest ever in their respective sports, for achieving such dominance when overall standards have risen, which should make it harder for them to climb so far above the norm? Or have overall standards not risen, as many people would no doubt argue in the case of cricket?
The jury's out, and I hope they have a good time.
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.
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