by John Idstrom on November 3, 2012

“Do it or don’t, you’ll regret it either way.”
–Jim Harrison

It is an odd sensation indeed, to think that you made the right decision and yet regret it almost every day. Still, some thirty years later, it is exactly this position I find myself occupying.

Here is the situation. It was 1985, and I was less than a year removed from my best season ever as a long-distance runner, one which saw me make the leap from top regional runner to true national class. I ran serious personal bests at all my distances, competed for the second year in a row in the World Cross Country Championships (as part of the silver-medal–winning US national team), and qualified as one of 14 athletes for the finals of the ten-thousand-meter race at the US Olympic Trials. My shoe company (the winged goddess of victory) took notice and made me a true professional athlete, which allowed me to quit my day job, such as it was.

That’s when it all came unraveled. That’s when the seeds of regret were planted.

I could go on ad infinitum about how it all came apart, but will spare you the gory details. In essence, I reached the limits of what my body could handle without aid. Attempting to capitalize on my successes in 1984, I amped up my training another notch . . . and came undone. Eighty-five-mile weeks became 115, none of them easy or junk miles. I got after it. My increased training regimen left me chronically tired and plagued by overuse injuries. Not only did my old nemesis, plantar fasciitis, flare up, but a new thorn stuck me: a painfully sore hip that would eventually be diagnosed as a partially torn labrum. Either injury would have robbed me of the efficiency so critical to the weightlessness that is distance running. Combined, they rendered my twice-daily training runs a sideways crab walk. Thus hobbled, my training flagged and my times multiplied.

And this is the point at which my regret rears its ugly head. Just as I was becoming desperate, I was offered a cure: a magic potion that would not only relieve my pain but would almost certainly allow me to drop my times by a second or two per lap. A simple cure — the mere pop of a pill — and one, I was assured, that many if not most of my colleagues and competitors had already found.

A second or two per lap. Does that sound like a trifle? With the passage of time, part of me now says so. But understand that two seconds a trip — over the 25 laps that is a ten-thousand-meter race on a four-hundred-meter track — would have put me within a few strides of the American record. Even at a second per lap faster, I could have toured the track capitals of Europe in the summer, running in front of paying and appreciative crowds known in the US only by baseball and football players. Friends of mine who had achieved such performances returned home with fanny packs stuffed with sums sufficient to tide them over for a full year. Not a lot by LeBron standards, but a princely sum, if not a king’s ransom. Like Marlon Brando, I coulda been a contender.

The magic potion, of course, was steroids. Illegal? Yes — but so is speeding. Unethical? That’s an interesting call, one you should make to Lance Armstrong or Marion Jones and see what they say.

I wish I could tell you that my decision not to pop a few Winstrols was the result of high ethical standards. But the truth is, any moral high ground I occupy is a low mound indeed. Truthfully? The main thing that held me back was fear. While my fix would have come complete with a little black book — a manual on how to dodge a positive drug test — it would not have come with a medical plan sufficient to pay for the endocrinologist I would have needed to keep my nuts from shriveling into raisins.

So I passed on the anabolic enhancements, not to mention HGH and blood replacement. And while my manly bits stayed intact, my career withered. A few good races here and there punctuated what was otherwise a painful decline. My arches ached, and my hip felt like it was cleaved in half. Daily runs, once flights, became labored. Two years thence, I was done. For good. Over and out. “Sayonara, sucker!” read the letter from Swooshville . . . or words to that effect.

And while most of me understands that taking the high road was the right thing to do, a little voice still whispers to me:  “You coulda. You shoulda.” In dulcet tones, it is the very same voice that tells you to see who “wants it more,” that implores you to “leave it all on the track.” If you watch ESPN or any football game, you hear doofus commentators trying to be that voice with their inane clichés. But when it’s in your head, it is beyond compelling.

So when I read Jonathan Lyons’s recent post on these pages about the possibility — even advisability — of an Enhanced Olympics as a perfectly ethical option worthy of consideration, I choked a little on my bitter pill of personal regret. I summarize his learned thesis at my peril, but he basically posits that it is perfectly fine for humans to adopt a cyborg status, where enhancements wearable and ingestible are A-OK . . . that such enhancements are, in fact, our destiny.

To which I say, with all due respect to Professor Lyons: horseshit.

While I may have my moments of regret about missing out on a few more glory days, when it’s dark and I am lying awake in the middle of the night, I do know one thing: what I ran, I own. I own it completely and without compromise. I earned every inch and every second of every circle of the track with sweat. And blood. And tears. Not figurative bodily fluids — the real thing. As a result, when I close my eyes in the middle of that sleepless night and finally begin to nod off, I do so with the abiding belief that when it comes to my performances, they are mine. Even though I didn’t quite summit the peak, I got close enough to see the view.

So you can maybe understand that the prospect of a separate Enhanced Olympics — one where athletes are allowed to ingest what they will, to wear whatever technological inventions they can afford to propel them through a cyberized space — leaves me stone frozen cold. Don’t get me wrong; I fully understand that the current situation of  athletes clandestinely using underground enhancements that circumvent the rules is untenable. Believe me when I tell you that not knowing if the competitor in the lane adjacent is juicing or not is psychically disruptive in the extreme. You can ask Lance Armstrong’s foes how they felt. You can ask me.

But creating a competition where anything goes isn’t the solution. I know that sounds terribly old-fashioned of me, and my friends will note that my viewpoint on this is inconsistent with the generally liberal stances I have taken when it comes to athletics. For example, I supported full professionalism in the Olympics long before any Dream Team. I’m certainly no purist when it comes to sports, nor am I a Luddite in real life.

But here’s the deal. If you create a category of competition where anything goes, you remove perhaps the only disincentive that noble aspirants have to perform au naturale, armed only with their talent, wiles, and toughness. Our post-postmodern lives are already cyborged all to hell and back. Already our decreasing connection — to the natural world, to the elements, to our primal, screaming selves — threatens our emotional and physical health. Whether we are spectators or participants, athletics offers us a glimpse, however fleeting, of one of our few remaining connections to our real humanity. The fact that thousands crowd stadia and millions view on TV is ample proof that this is somehow important, in ways that we might not fully understand.

So goes Lyons’ argument: What would be the harm in creating a new category of endeavor where anything goes? It’s a concept difficult to argue against, when my own regrets suggest I would have considered competing in such a category myself.

Assuming that athletes engaged in such an event would have at their disposable virtually unlimited medical support to balance their fucked-up systems (endocrine, reproductive, and immune, to name just three), Enhanced Olympics are still ill-advised, at least to this creaking-kneed runner. For one thing, human nature being what it is, Enhanced Olympics would relegate those competing in the “organic category” to what amounts to NCAA Division III status. This would be unfortunate in the extreme.

Not that there is anything wrong with Division III; in fact, there is much to be admired about athletes who choose to compete at that level. However, the total paid attendance of the entire division on any given football Saturday would scarcely fill one stadium in the Southeastern Conference. And if you think that the best athletes participate for the purity of competition, you are naive in the extreme. Athletes compete not just to be the best they can be, but also for the glory and adoration that are the prize in the Happy Meal. Writers write to be read, painters paint to be viewed, singers sing to be heard. And athletes run to be admired. My own heart once swelled to overflowing when I was approached post-race by a pretty girl who told me, “Watching you race makes me want to go for a run.” While not exactly the line I was hoping for from her, it was deeply appreciated nonetheless.

Creating an enhanced category for the Olympics or for any sporting endeavor threatens to ruin the very thing that makes athletics what it is: a touchstone to our primal, snorting selves. That is not to argue for the status quo; to be certain, our competitions are seriously compromised physically, ethically, and emotionally by those who cut corners. But as one who was tempted to do so himself and resisted by only the thinnest of margins, I can tell you that removing that barrier is not the solution.

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John Idstrom thinks and writes about food at

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