On the morning of June 20th, 1968, the fastest a human being had ever been recorded to move under their own power was just over 26 mph. That’s the top speed reached by a person who can run one hundred meters in ten seconds - the peak that tends to occur about halfway through a race.
By evening, three men in Sacramento, California had all run faster than that.
Damon Wayans has a line: I like the idea of people, but people always fuck it up.
You could apply that principle to any and all human pursuits - internet message boards and democracy leading the pack - but for sports it has the wince of innocence lost. That’s partly because, unlike most endeavors that say, have consequences, it’s just a damn game.
If you’re an athlete, you’re not trying to change the world or even say anything true about it. You’re not trying to reveal your soul or save someone else’s. You’re just trying to win a game. There’s nothing wrong with that - in fact, that’s kind of the fun of it. It’s a meaningless space we try to fill with meaning. It’s play.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Here’s this hobby, this art form, this pure physical joy that anyone with a body can appreciate. People play. People watch them play.
So why are the people playing the game not having any fun?
I don’t listen to sports radio, but 23.5 million Americans do regularly. (Incidentally, that’s double the number of people who read news regularly.) Popular talk show host Jim Rome calls his audience ‘the clones’, which is to the point: they tend to think and behave in a similar register, which is a vaguely menacing, overconfident bluster about What Should Happen. What play the coach should have called, what trade the team should make, what teenager a franchise should draft first. Draft. Like it’s an army. And it’s the law.
You don’t need to have seen five seasons of Friday Night Lights like I did many times breakups are tough to know that people take their sports very seriously. But here’s a good moment to remember anyway, when a clueless bureaucrat urges calm at a raucous town meeting: ‘The thing we got to remember is, in the end, this is just a football game,’ he says. Hero Coach Taylor eyes him squarely: ‘Hey William, you know what? My family’s been getting threatening phone calls all week long, all times of the night. My home has been vandalized and my field has been destroyed. So don’t patronize us and tell us it’s just a damn football game.’
That’s high school. Here the fervor is founded on just one of the twin stakes plunged through the heart of sports: competition.
Sports is unique among human accomplishments in that you can always do it better. No playwright working today looks to best Shakespeare; no composer tries to surpass Mozart; no scientist trains to one-up Newton. Even contemporary artists aren’t really in competition with each other. There’s not really any such thing as making a better movie or writing a better song than somebody else, necessary illusions to the contrary. Art is appreciated by whoever appreciates it, and the rest is opinion for opinion’s sake.
The facts of athletics are not so abstract. In fact, they’re as cold and hard as they could be, because they’re grounded in the reality of the body. Like all human activity, it is of course an almost wholly mental exercise, requiring all the same rigors of intellect as any other - things like planning, discipline, and focus. But its accomplishments really can be measured. The champion bodybuilder lifts the most weight. It’s not a poetry reading.
And so we have this problem of the best. For some reason - it’s not entirely obvious to me why this should be so - the audience of modern sports and their corporate handlers demand that the people they watch playing a game be the best. The fastest running backs, the biggest linebackers, the most astonishing quarterbacks mankind can produce. Think about that. Out of seven billion, the tenth best quarterback will lose you attendance, the twentieth best will sink your team, the fiftieth best will barely squeak by with a career, the hundredth best will have some fun in college, and the two hundredth best might have bagged your groceries.
And that’s before we even get to money.
And that’s before we even get to money.
After sprinting phenomenon Usain Bolt set the new world record for the 100m dash in 2009 - 9.58 seconds and a top speed of 27.44 mph - pop science was abuzz with the question of whether or not we’ve reached the limit of how quickly the human body can move. Look at a chart of the record times over the past century and see a Rembrandt of diminishing returns.
The official record-keeping body for this sort of the thing, the awkwardly pluralized International Association of Athletics Federations, recognized the first world record for the 100m dash in 1912 at 10.6 seconds. It took nine years for it to be broken down to 10.4. Another nine years shaved off another millisecond. Six more years for the next millisecond. Twenty years for the one after that, although the human race did have other things on its mind.
Four more years for Ike, four more years for another record - and a nice round number to kick off the Kennedy administration: a hundred meters in ten seconds flat. Ten years later, the Night of Speed in Sacramento, when three runners all set times of 9.9.
Then they went digital, and the precision made the numbers bounce back up, hitting variations on 9.9 for the next twenty years. Human doggedness persisted, and 9.8’s became the new record for the close of the old millennium - then 9.7’s for the opening of the new one.
Now a man has gone under 9.6. That’s one second in a hundred years.
Put money and competition together in a pressure cooker, see what you get. People care enough about something when it’s their school colors; add greed to the mix and it’s a potent brew indeed.
Money, in all things but especially in sports, is a way of saying inequality. Money, after all, is something everyone doesn’t have. Every dollar that you have could be in someone else’s pocket, and usually is.
If money is a hot air balloon pulling a few people up and leaving the rest behind, the people on the ground will do everything they can to get a ride. Some us might build a ladder, others might buy a plane ticket, but for many and most of us, the best you can do is learn to jump as high as you can.
Napoleon said, or should have said, that hunger makes for great armies. Ghettos make for great basketball players.
We like to believe that drugs are a matter of personal responsibility, and it makes intuitive sense. What could be more personal a choice than putting something in your body? It’s recognizable, like sex - something happened here, and we made it happen.
There’s a narrative we follow about this, and it’s as deeply ingrained a fiction as we have in our culture. Stories of personal redemption follow this arc: I blamed society for my problems, but it was just because I didn’t want to take responsibility for the poison I was putting in my body. I’m a sinner, I’m powerless before my addiction, and if only all of you kids would make the choice to just say no.
It’s a fallacy of point of view. A person makes a choice, but people don’t. People respond to conditions and incentives, as all organisms do. The more stress, the more stress relief. People under any kind of pressure, just as all bodies governed by Newton’s third law, react. Sometimes it’s a productive reaction, and sometimes it’s not. But it’s all human, all natural, all perfectly predictable. If a man’s wife leaves him, he may not necessarily drink more. But would it be at all surprising to anyone that men drink more when their wives leave them?
And could you really blame them?
The uber-sports documentary Hoop Dreams expresses this reality far better than I ever could, so see it if you haven’t. Same goes for Sugar, a feature about Dominican immigrants playing minor league baseball in Iowa. The farm system it chronicles - again, what a word - is the bad seed that contains the evil of the whole in modern sports.
Children - and they’re children, even if they just turned eighteen or whatever - are lured from their homelands (be it DR or Compton) with the promise of a chance at the show. The most talented kids from their schools, their neighborhoods, their districts, their towns, all feeding into a massive culler that will, in the end, produce a statistically insignificant output of paid, professional athletes. Most everyone who plays sports, plays well, plays with discipline, hard work, focus, and heart, will never be paid to do it.
The ones who do, of course, get paid a lot. And that’s where it gets worse.
When Alex Rodriguez - A-Rod to his strangers - admitted to using steroids, this is what he said:
‘When I arrived in Texas in 2001, I felt an enormous amount of pressure. I felt like I had all the weight of the world on top of me and I needed to perform, and perform at a high level every day...I was young. I was stupid. I was naive. And I wanted to prove to everyone that I was worth being one of the greatest players of all time.’
Rodriguez started his career in the bigs at 18 - only the third player to do so since the turn of the 20th century. A star’s star athlete, a once-in-a-generation talent from the beginning, Rodriguez decided to juice at the age of 26 after several successful years in the show. Successful enough to earn him the single most lucrative contract in the history of sports: $252 million for ten years. A quarter of a billion dollars, a decade of his life. A Dominican kid from the Heights.
Important people love to scold athletes. I don’t know why they feel so entitled to do so - maybe because it strikes a populist tone, like the calls to a sports radio station. I was watching C-SPAN when Congress was investigating the MLB for doping, and the jowly fellow who spends too little time in the sun was posturing like a runway model. He wanted to know, Roger Clemens, what he should tell his kids about the sanctity of the American pastime. Do you hate Georges Washington and Bailey both so much, sir, that you would knowingly get an injection of HGH in your ass?
President Obama called A-Rod’s juicing ‘depressing’ news - I’ve never heard him use that word about drone strikes that kill innocents or even American military casualties in our ongoing wars - and asserted that it ‘tarnished an entire era’. If only Presidents would reserve their censures for the truly deserving, like The Simpsons or Kanye West.
Sadly, unimportant people like to scold athletes too. How could you put drugs in your body, you poor kid who’s supporting his whole extended family by running and jumping faster than literally everybody else? How could you be so cynical as to ruin an innocent game like baseball with your dirty, dirty drugs and your dirty, dirty lies?
You know what folks? Grow up. This isn’t their fucking problem. It’s ours.
We're not asking these guys to be good. We're not asking them to be very good. We're asking them to be better than everybody else. Better than the guy next to them, better than everyone they've ever played with. Better than everyone, at every moment, as younger, faster, stronger kids multiply in the background like mushrooms in an industrially fertilized field. We're asking them to be the best.
That's an impossible, asymptotic demand - a ludicrous one. You can't be the best, at least not for very long. Someone's always right there tailing you. At most, you can be the best for a moment.
So what about the next moment? When you've signed the multi-million dollar contract, landed your trophy wife, bought a house, sent the kids to private school so they can get a chance at a job that doesn’t fire you if you blow out your knee? Still it's only just beginning.
Competition like a wolf at their heels, money like a tidal wave in a desert. They love the game as much as anyone does, love it truly, with their bodies and souls fused into magnificent action. They love to play. But they’re the only ones who can’t, because to them it’s not a game.
Drugs are little pieces of our souls, and they tell us a whole lot about who we are. A poet drinks. A nurse drinks coffee. An isolated, unemployed person smokes crystal meth. But people who play are free and clear, because they can be - because they’re having fun.
When they want you to run 28 mph, whether or not the human body can sustain the pressure is certainly an interesting question. Ask the same question about the soul.