mid-century maunderings for men who know better
It takes a rare form of naïveté to believe high performance athletes do not benefit from illegal performance enhancing drugs. We will never know the extent to which this occurs. Some are caught. Some confess. Some are contrite, others defiant; and others continue to perform undetected and retire upon their oak-leaf clusters. That we care and feel betrayed when one is caught suggests that we hold athletes to a higher moral standard than just about any other profession. When convicted they are stripped of their medals, trophies and records, as though they didn’t really beat their competitors, their glory turned to disgrace.
One of the best known and oft-recited English poems, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was written by a man whose addiction to laudanum is well documented. Most of Coleridge’s work was the product of long nights spent in the arms of Morpheus. So is it real poetry? Is it an honest and authentic expression of the poet’s craft, a true representation of the poet’s talent, or was he cheating? Are these good poems or was it just the drugs?
Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine all vacuumed absinthe, an apéritif that was eventually outlawed for the erroneous belief that it sent drinkers mad. The Impressionists also took refuge in the green fairy. Do we question their right to occupy the Pantheon? Should we reconsider their work and deem it ordinary or worthless because it was produced in an agitated fever of intoxication?
Every well-known (and lesser known) jazz musician I can name was addicted to heroin (except for those in thrall to cannabis, amphetamines, cocaine and alcohol). At no point does anybody question the artistry of Armstrong, Monk, Parker (many acolytes believed Charlie Parker’s genius came from a syringe and energetically developed their own addictions in the vain hope they would reach his heights), Gillespie, Holliday, Roach, Miles, Coltrane, Blakey, et al. And it was not WWII and U.S. servicemen’s easy access to amphetamines and opiates that did it. From the start of the Twentieth Century, jazz (and blues) musicians have been taking whatever was going. There are some exceptions, rare and few (Horace Silver). The fact remains that the greatest American contribution to the Twentieth Century* was fuelled, sustained by and dependent on drugs. Be that as it may, we treat the music with reverence and recognise the supreme artistry of the musicians. Their addictions take nothing away from their accomplishments.
The great American writers of the twenties and thirties were roaring drunks. Would ‘Hills like White Elephants’ have been a better story had its author preferred ginger ale? Would Ernest Hemingway have personally liberated the Ritz from the Germans when the Americans marched into Paris had his parched whistle not demanded champagne and martinis?
Likewise those Algonquins:
I do like to drink a Martini
One, maybe two at the most.
Three and I’m under the table,
four and I’m under the host.
Dorothy Parker’s quatrain just wouldn’t zing on lemon barley water. Some say without the booze literature would lose. Others, like Tom Dardis in ‘The Thirsty Muse’, suggest that Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald lost their powers and suffered premature decline as a result of chronic alcoholism.
Very few professional cyclists (like Christophe Bassons, ridiculed by team mates as Monsieur Propre) have spoken out and denounced doping to the extent of publicly confessing NOT to have doped. You can tell who the clean riders are. They’re the ones that have a bad day and don’t miraculously recover. They’re the ones shaking, ashen-faced, unable to draw breath, helped onto the road by soigneurs at the finish so they can heave air into their lungs. In an attempt to impose some sort of control over the uncontrollable, the body governing racing cycling, the UCI, has banned syringes as part of the medical equipment used by team doctors. But how do they monitor that ban? They don’t. Some teams boast of their clean approach, others are very, very quiet on the subject. Alexandr Vinoukourov of Kazakhstan won the 2012 men’s Olympic road race, having served a two-year suspension for blood doping. His lack of contrition makes some in cycling uneasy. They should be glad he hasn’t written a book naming names (like Paul Kimmage and Willy Voet).
Ever since racing cycling began, the riders have been preparing themselves. It is not confined to the professional ranks either. Young amateurs take dangerous risks in order to ride and hopefully be scouted to compete at the highest level. It is tragic. Riders died then and riders die now due to the hormones, transfusions and drugs. Does this make their feats less Olympian? Athletes in the Ancient games chewed lamb testicles for stamina and cyclists in the 1896 Olympic Games sucked sugar cubes soaked in nitro-glycerine, presumably for explosive acceleration. So it could be argued that taking drugs is the epitome of the Olympic ideal. Bradley Wiggins Tour De France win and his Time Trial victory in the London Olympics is seen by some as a victory for clean cycling, as is Cadel Evans’ win in Le Tour 2011. Time will tell. There is a part of me that understands how riders treat their bodies like a soviet factory that has just been given the new production targets. The pain, pressure and need to stay competitive and earn a living is a common enough excuse given by athletes of all codes once they are caught. But they are judged and found to be unworthy specimens. Deceitful and weak, they are the shame of their sporting code.
I haven’t mentioned motion pictures, nor do I need to. From the good-time Charlies of the silent days to the bizarre outrages of 21st century corporate entertainment Czars, the movies have always been a place to get fast and loose, and while the public feigns shock and disgust, they lap it up like a dog at a pool of its own vomit.
As a species we have always loved to ride that barrel over the edge. I cannot see how one can admire and enjoy art produced under the influence of drugs and then condemn and disdain athletic achievement enhanced by drugs. I think it is a paradox that will gnaw at my fibres long into the future.
*I mean it. Every form of western Twentieth Century music that is worth listening to has its roots in American Jazz and blues. Almost every Twentieth Century innovation in music production, technology and instrument manufacture starts here. There is nothing better than American music and I say that as a huge fan of the British imitators from the sixties and late seventies and an admirer of Kraftwerk (who were as influential on the nascent hip-hop movement as sixties Jamaican soundsystem culture).
And is there anything better than music? The best films and literature, tailoring, fashion and art of the Twentieth Century that is American was almost always made by European émigrés. Advances in medicine? Manufacturing? Aircraft? Motor Cars? The Americans will have to share that glory spread very thin. Fact is, the only export an American can be truly proud of is their music. AND I include All those NorCal nerdniks and their ADHD consumables. Which would you choose? The iPod or the music that’s on it? Here is some music, just in case you’re having trouble deciding :
Australians playing American soul music, written by the tall fellow not playing the trumpet.