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Sports Medicine

On February 28, 2010, 26 million Canadians watched Sidney Crosby score the winning goal in the Canada/USA game at the Winter Olympics.

They shared a heart-stopping moment and congratulated themselves on Mr. Crosby's contribution to the 14 gold medals won by Canadian athletes.

An equally impressive number of silver and bronze medals were achieved by Canadian Athletes, but competitions have only winners and also-rans.

This is not the first time Canadians have been transfixed by athletic heroism.  On September 28, 1972. Paul Henderson scored the ‘Goal of the Century’ and helped his team defeat the Soviet Union in the “Series of the Century”.

Hockey players are not the only athletes to capture  our' imagination. On November 16, 1999, former Olympian Ben Johnson was back in the news. Mr. Johnson was on Canadians'  radar because he had won a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics, running 100 meters faster than anyone had ever managed.

Unhappily, he failed a drug test and had to hand the medal back.

Mr. Johnson failed a second drug test in 1993. On November 16, 1999, he came up short a final time. This time the banned substance was a diuretic.

Mr. Johnson claimed that he was taking the drug to deal with stomach pain.

Hardly anyone was interested. Mr. Johnson was an embarrassing footnote in Canada’s national and international sports competitions.

As Mr. Johnson passes from view, we might consider whether his fate does not point to a more pervasive harm emanating from the way we do sports.

Certainly it is hard to think of Ben Johnson as suffering from hubris. He seemed ingenuous, perhaps even simple; a man who just happened to be able to run very quickly.

Rather than tidying things up by blaming him for succumbing to temptation and cheating, we would do well to regard Ben Johnson as a ‘mine canary’ – a bird taken underground to warn of noxious airs.

In other words, not only athletes are being harmed by the antics of the professional sports establishment, Olympic extravaganzas and TSN. For at least a century, North Americans have been reliably and increasingly enthusiastic sports fans. In spite of this interest in fitness and prowess we have become increasingly sedentary and overweight. In 2007, more than fifty per cent of North Americans were overweight or obese.

Disease researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently made the stunning prediction that one in three children born in the United States in 2000 will likely develop Type 2 diabetes sometime in their lifetime unless they get more exercise and improve their diets.1

There are many reasons for this alarming turn but only one enjoys sacred cow status and is never discussed. The evolution of professional sports tracks the emergence of obesity problems in a highly suspicious way. Never have so many human beings passed so much time watching a few people do stuff. The time we spend sitting and watching is only part of the problem. Professional sports also teaches billions of human beings that vigorous athletic endeavors should be left to genetically gifted, superbly motivated and properly trained individuals. Do not try any of this at home!

Even for these individuals, the window of meaningful athletic possibility rarely lasts more than a decade.

This is the realpolitik that must have been tormenting Mr. Johnson. In 1999 he was 38, with little or no time to regain the glory that had once been in his grasp.

If anything can be said with certainty, Ben Johnson must have started out regarding honest competition as sacred. He had, after all, spent much of his life preparing, and one can scarcely do that if cheating is lurking in the back of one's mind.

But what does competition mean? In Ben’s case, it meant an unimaginably intense 10 second challenging of other men, equally prepared and motivated. Did Ben believe that they were dopers and that he must level the field? Was he mesmerized by the possibility of riches and adulation, or terrified by the prospect of the anonymity that swallows up losers?

We will never know. There is one thing we can be certain of however. Mr. Johnson’s tribulations are the tip of the professional sports iceberg.

Mr. Johnson confronted these difficulties and behaved badly. The rest of us live with them every day of our lives and do not behave at all. Like Ben, we have internalized two dangerous ideas. The first idolatrizes the accomplishments human beings are capable of — if they happen to have coaches, training resources and lots of free time. This is a toxic notion in itself. It means that ordinary, unadorned human beings are so far out of the running there is little point in making any beginning.

The second idea is equally perverse. On the professional sports model, the window is so small that lifelong athleticism makes little sense. Even superbly talented and disciplined athletes have only a few years before they must join fans on the couch.

This means that every human being passes the bulk of his or her life observing a few thousand people ‘moving the athletic bar’ further from the arena of plausible accomplishment.

This also explains why doping will always be with us. Every athlete contemplating the mountain they must scale can only look longingly upon pharmaceutical regimens promising a leg up.

The harms suffered by professional athletes are, however, trivial compared to what else is going on. More dangerous notions are sucked in by fans every time they attend or watch a game.

Meaningful athleticism is only available for a few people, and only briefly.

Life is all about sorting populations into (a few) winners and (many) losers.

If Mr Johnson really is a 'canary mine bird', the rest of us should take the opportunity to ask how his life might have gone had if the public had had a different understanding of sports and athleticism. Surely it is not impossible that fans could come to value lifelong athleticism. What's not to like about men or women running four minute miles at age 60! Or even five or six minute miles!

Modern athletes are pushing achievement envelopes, but doing so in increasingly short-sighted ways. There's no reason to believe the public would not continue to applaud the achievements of the young while regarding the accomplishments of middle-aged and older athletes with even greater interest. After all, these accomplishments would be increasingly relevant to every one of us every day we live.

Such an enlarged competitive athlete tent could get more of us off of our couches. A sense of athleticism across decades rather than years would almost certainly lead to a more jaundiced view of dangerous pharmaceuticals.

What is the merit in enlarging our sense of what is possible, if the way we do so diminishes our sense of how many can participate and for how long?

We owe Mr. Johnson thanks for demonstrating a destructive aspect of professional sports, Olympic games and international competitions.

We need to reject the foreshortened model of vigorous human life that tripped him up. Had we done this fifty years ago, Ben Johnson might still be a person Canadians could be proud of.

Think what he might have taught us about how life could run.