Friday, 26 September 2014

Get off the bike

I've noticed a strong correlation between finding time to write (again) and the end of the cycling season, having been at least a week behind watching highlights of the Vuelta on the PVR.  And if you think the Grand Tours have no place in a sci-fi blog, then just consider Alberto Contador's win having broken his leg just a few weeks before.  Put that in a character arc and they'd just laugh at you...

So, let me make this science-y and fiction-y and just a tad controversial by saying that I have no issue whatsoever with drugs in sport.

Yes, you heard.  No issue at all.

Let me explain.  Sport, at a professional, dedicated level, involves living an entirely artificial life.  How you eat and sleep and everything in between is dictated by the demands of sport.  Take diet.  Carefully controlled, carefully managed and not just in the balance between carbs, fat and protein, but supplements too.

Everything that you push into your face - food, pills, whatever - has a physiological effect on you.  Except sweetcorn, that comes out the same, everybody knows that.  So how and why differentiate one from another?  One's a pill and the other's on a plate?  We can bat such presentational matters away simply, science can present one thing in the guise of another quite easily (e.g. here in Britain, horse meat as beef).

No, no, you cry, this is about drugs, chemicals.  But everything is a chemical when looked at at that level.  So what makes these chemicals naughty?

Is it the old chestnut of one being man-made and the other natural?  Why should a supplement derived from a plant be okay but one derived in a lab not?  What if, on a molecular level, they were the same?  We can make aspirin, or get exactly the same stuff from trees.  What then?

What if we could put together chemicals with some Breaking Bad-meets-Minecraft device?  We could then tweak and tweak a molecule from being some benign sugar to being king of the go-faster stripes.  Where's the line that was crossed?  You don't know because there is no hard, fast, objective difference.  Probe and the seemingly black and white distinction becomes a sea of grey as you push the envelope until it falls off the table.

Given everything the elite sportsman does is artificial the only way I see that you could justify banning drugs in sport is if you banned all artificial interventions and chose ordinary people at random to represent their countries.  Rather like the ancient Greek's approach to democracy - 'oi, you, you're a senator, get used to it...'

So much for science-y, where's the fiction-y?  Well, if Charlton Brooker can outline a story in his Guardian column and then, a few years later, bring it to life as the first episode of Black Mirror, although I seem to remember it was Terry Wogan who had to have relations with the pig initially, then so can I.

It's about a cyclist.  He's good, but not great.  On the fringes of a professional team, a domestique.  He's offered drugs.  He refuses, he has high ideals.  But the pressure mounts, to stay in the team he has to give in.  He takes them.  Performance improves, but so does a sense of guilt.  But the team management implore him to keep quiet.  They even seem adept at convincing the authorities.  He shops the team, throws his career away.  But then he finds out that he was taking placebos.  Had he kept quiet he would have been riding clean, but now no team will touch him as somebody who was prepared, even under duress, to ride dirty.

Better than Shakespeare, huh?

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