Saturday, June 14, 2014

On Un-Becoming a Runner

Over the last few months, I have become less and less a runner. None of this was an act of will or a decision. Things have conspired -- family, body, job. I know this is true because when I go for a run now there is an absence of fluidity. The identity is not natural; it's artificial.

The causes of this change are not so relevant, and understanding them would bring little understanding to the fact of change itself. This is the thing about change: in the raw core of its newness its origins can't be traced. Things do come into this world out of nothing, putting the lie to the the logic of causality. The philosopher decrees: ex nihilo fit nihil. And yet -- each morning novelty covers the grass of the world like fresh dew.

Some changes, of course, run deeper than others, and we use the language of identity to talk about those deep changes. We say: I am this, as if the words am, is are, be were incantations that take a moment in time and lock it up in a case. John Dewey, following folks like Nietzsche, Hume, and Heraclitus, took the metaphysical view that what is most fundamental about the world is in fact its precariousness and fragility. The Real falls apart. This is what is most natural and basic in the world. What takes effort and thought and coordinated intelligence is the holding of this precariousness together, through rhythm and harmony when it is working well, through strain and routine when we have to. Identity, being real, is no different.

A fully functioning identity in a precarious world is not an essence of the Aristotelian sort. It is not held together the way a mathematical equation or analytic proposition is constructed. What we talk about as identity is held together the way in which all things in a changing world hold together: through the rhythms and flows of life, the harmonies that are constructed through action, and the stresses and strains that are the mark of more difficult effort.

So, to say now that I am less and less a runner, is to say that the rhythms and harmonies and even stresses and strains that held this identity together are unraveling. It takes much searching and many false starts to find the beat. In part this is because every rhythm needs to be rewritten in order to remain vital. Identities can die through staleness -- unlinked from vital forces, harmonies become mere repetitions.

Since this is a running blog, it's sort of odd to blog about un-becoming a runner, but really I think this happens to all runners at various times in their lives. It already happened to me once in my mid-20s. When I was in the full blush of my running identity, I looked back on that time that was lost to running and couldn't recognize that person. Who could get up every day, for days on end, and not go for a run? What did I do to keep myself sane? It was literally hard to imagine myself.

But now, just months into my un-becoming, I look back on the runner that I was and I cannot imagine the amount of energy that I poured into my training, how deeply I depended on the run or two a day, the races I anticipated, the feelings of strength and power, the honed and sharpened body. Who was that person? I see him now, in the bodies of others, in the lean streaks floating like animals around the track. He is not me.

Is it to the good? It's hard to say. It's good like the summer is good: the end of one season and the beginning of another. As I write I find myself trying to avoid a nostalgic tone and find a medium between two false extremes. The one extreme would say that identifying as a runner is a pretty trivial identification, and it's better to find deeper identification in deeper streams: fatherhood, career, etc. The other extreme treats dis-identification as a runner as a betrayal. As if I were born to be a runner, and as if losing this identity is a failure to follow out a script that has already been written.

I've believed both of those extremes, sometimes simultaneously. To identify as a runner means to happen more often than not on the idea that you were truly born to run, to feel like it is your destiny. And it also means that you have doubted whether all that time spent headed in asphalt circles amounted to much more than selfishness.

Neither of these thoughts capture what has happened with me. This change came sideways, not through the extremes. It strikes me that this is what happens most often. We rarely win an argument with ourselves about what we should be. Instead, we just change the subject. What was important, shimmering, and vital now seems ordinary. What was unseen, gray, and banal is now full of color, wild, and beckoning.

To live is to change; the logic of life is not a logic of identity.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Why Do We Choose to Suffer?

"The strenuous life tastes better." --William James

* * *

Effort is the currency of endurance sport and of course of life itself.

There is a thin but essential line between effort and suffering -- at the maximum intensity of effort, this line is thinnest, but the thinness of that margin makes the difference between the two all the more evident.

I have been pondering the sources of human effort lately in no small part because my life has become more demanding. I find myself working long hours and coming home to a busy house. There are few moments in my life in which effort is absent, and yet I find myself more capable than ever of giving effort.

Is this what distinguishes effort from suffering? Effort is the sort of act that leads to the growth of the feeling of will and power. Fatherhood feels very much like this, an activity -- when it goes well -- in which our actions lead us to feeling fuller and more capable. A good job that matches our capabilities also seems to have this sort of spiraling effort feedback loop, in which our efforts lead to growth in capacities, an ability to give even greater effort.

Suffering, at its root, is the opposite sort of loop. It's what happens when effort dissipates and leaves us feeling less capable, more diminished. At its extremes, suffering requires self-destruction on behalf of survival, as when a trapped animal chews through its own leg in order to free itself. That's a gruesome image of overt suffering, but the human animal is capable of similar sorts of psychic mutilation when it finds itself similarly trapped.

When we race and train, we play on the boundary between the positivity of effort and the negativity of suffering. The best races have this strange effect where effort finds itself almost magically in a positive feedback loop, where our success in taking risk brings with it a rush of adrenaline and a feeling of confidence that allows us to break through capacities and boundaries of performance we thought were fixed.

But just as often a risk hurts us, and we find ourselves in the realm of suffering -- a realm in which every turn we take leads to more pain of some sort. Once the veil of suffering has been pierced, all that's left is to decide whether to keep going or to stop, each angle, each glance seems likely to bring more pain. We feel like trapped foxes staring at that damned leg.

Let's not move too quickly, though: to draw parallels between suffering in a race and suffering in life is to conflate fiction with reality. Suffering in a race is always metaphorical -- no matter how much it actually hurts us or even injures us. We do it out of an excess of life, in same way that works of fiction are in excess of reality, no matter how deeply they shine the light on reality. Reading a novel or a work of philosophy is never the same as living a life or having a philosophy -- the stakes are not the same.

Maybe this distinction allows us to frame an answer to a perennial question that distance runners ask themselves, especially after bad races. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we choose to suffer? Part of the answer, of course, is that we are looking for the high of effort but like junkies sometimes overdose on effort and land ourselves in trouble. But I think that we also choose to suffer. Because of the fictional nature of suffering in sport, there is a way in which we can enjoy it. Like a powerful novel, the realer it is, the more it hurts, the more we appreciate it. This appreciation is not necessarily enjoyment (do we read Joyce or Faulkner for enjoyment?) but something else.

We do it because it allows us to to make an encounter with suffering, not to be overcome by it -- which is what happens with actual suffering in the real world. To live reality is as different from understanding reality as life is from philosophy. Racing gives us an embodied way of doing philosophy: we encounter pain; we encounter suffering; we encounter dire choices. And then we come away from them just as we come away from reading a profound novel or a well-constructed argument -- with an enriched sense of reality and a deeper notion of life that in turn helps us deal with the actual and inevitable diminishments of human experience that we live directly.

To sum up in a sentence: racing turns suffering into an experience of effort. Through the encounter with suffering, we have the chance of taking collapse and turning it into growth. Gillian Welch sings it this way: "There's something good in a worried song / For the troubles in your soul / For a worried mind / Is a long way down / Down in a deep dark hole." The worried song allows the worried mind to encounter itself as a subject of art. Suffering in a race allows us to encounter our own suffering as a conscious and even brave act.

And so, in this way, the virtual and the real find themselves as partners, not antagonists, and we find ourselves as real beings who are also able to take flight from the world in order to return to it, more capable of effort and also more capable to face suffering. Even if in the end we will never be able to fully endure actual and real, we can at least know it, which is better than nothing.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Boston 2014: Running Together

My buddy and training partner Andrew sent me these thoughts as he headed up to Boston to run the marathon on Monday. Andrew would be the first to say that he is not an eloquent writer, but the thoughts he shared with me struck me deeply, and I think they will resonate with everyone in the running community. He's given me permission to share them.

I have to admit, I wish I was on that train with him -- but for those of us who are not at Boston 2014 in person, we are there in spirit, stride for stride. Good luck to all the runners: may you endure well.

My old cross-country coach used to say it like this: "shared pain is less pain." 

*  *  *

Where to begin?  As I sit on a train headed toward Boston, I figure it's about as appropriate time as any to put down some thoughts and reflections on what brought me here.  April 15th, 2013 was a day that I'll always remember.  I don't think I need to dwell on what that day meant to me and to us, to runners and our community.  

I say community because that's what it is.  This was a direct assault on our community of runners that is not bound by walls, borders, ethnicity, gender, age, or religious affiliation.  People often think it's fun or funny to "attack" runners, either by verbal jeers, hand gestures or the mocking cat calls that we've all come to expect...and most times they get an unexpected result.  This "runner" isn't quite as docile and timid as they think, and the standard 1 finger salute heads their way.  Well back to me now, cause really this is all about me...I tend to take things that like extra personal and lash out with a touch more retaliation then may be necessary.  (See Lords of The Sidewalk.)  Over the years I have yelled, cussed, chased down, spit in windows, kicked in sides of doors, and overall just plain lashed out against those that attack my run.  It makes me angry to know that while I'm trying to get away from it all, people will butt their heads into my world and try to disrupt my attempt to distance myself from them.  So that's a bit of me...and when this attack happened you can pretty much multiply that feeling by a million.  They didn't just attack MY run, they attacked the running community.  Fuck that.  Fuck you.  It's time for someone to get punched in the face. 

So what options did I have?  What options did we have?  Well I did the only thing I could think of....I got on the mighty internet and looked for a race.  I found one 6 weeks out that seemed like it wouldn't be too hot, or too crowed, or too sold out.  I don't typically run well in the heat so I knew that if I had any chance to quality for Boston 2014, it would need to happen fast....without much "marathon" training.  So I ran.  Not away from what happened, but toward retribution against those that attacked us.  My training gathered up steam and I focused with renewed interest on a singularly particular goal.  Boston 2014.  Must.  Happen. 

I started to realize how many other people felt this way and were doing the same thing.  Friends came out of the woodwork with similar goals, internet message boards flowed with stories and plans for people to make it to Boston 2014..the entire community was angry and filled with a renewed passion to fight back!  To attack not just the people that hit our symbol, but to fight back against anyone and anything that stood in the way of what we wanted..  Summer marathons, small marathons, big marathons, hilly marathons, it didn't matter.  People attacked them to fight back and take their goals.  We would make it to Boston 2014. I was overwhelmed with how unified we had become.  

It took me 6 years of running marathons to get my first BQ.  There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears put into that race.  That's one I'll always remember and I literally cried on the ride home thinking about all of the effort, time, and miles I poured into that.  Since then I've qualified a few more times, but it was never the main goal after that race.  I moved on and made breaking that 3 hour mark my main focus, which I accomplished twice.   So you see I'm not a great runner and I'm not a bad runner, I'm just a guy that works hard and enjoys the struggle and accomplishments that come along with that.  So when I started this 6 weeks focus on Boston I was a guy nearly 4 years removed from a sub 3 hour marathon, and I hadn't run a BQ since 2010. 

After I signed up for my race attempt to BQ I got a call from one of my best friends, Jeff.  He was going to fly on his own dime up to the race I registered for, pay for it himself, and help pace me to my goal.  I suspect there are others with stories like that.  People within our community trying to help each other out, trying to arrive in Boston at the same time.  Jeff wasn't planning on running Boston, but it was enough for him that I run Boston.

As it sounds we ran BOSTONSTRONG that day. It was all business, focus, and desire.  We ripped down that final stretch together and I had my BQ, my PR, and my 1st Sub 3 hr marathon in 4 years.  2:56:41  I booked this train ride to Boston that day.  It was done.  As I crossed the line that day I headed right to my car so I could text my friend Mike.  He too had poured his heart and soul into another marathon going on that same day.  He was "retired" from marathons until April 15th, when that bomb shook us all.  The text came back....2:56.  Success!  The feeling I had that day will likely never be duplicated.  It was a feeling of relief, excitement, and still so much anger. 

Later that summer I had a chance to try and repay the favor, to help pace my college roommate and former training partner to a BQ.  I jumped at the chance...and as strong as he was, we didn't make it.  Training through the summer was difficult and making the gains needed were too much in too short of a time.  One thing that I take from that day is that none of us are alone and we're all in this together. Jeff was there beside me for 26.2 miles, and without his strength I don't think I would have made it.  I was right there next to Ray for miles until we couldn't hold the pace needed any longer.  Today I take strength from him as I prepare to represent myself...and my community well in Boston. 

Over the next several months I trained.  I trained hard, focused, and I ran literally thousands of miles to get me to this point.  In shape, ready to not only conquer the 26.2, but to do it better and faster than I have before.  Like many, I'll be toeing the line with mixed emotions.  Happy that I'm there, but sad that it took something tragic to get me there.  Happy that I'm fit and in shape and ready for a PR, but wanting to soak in the experience and enjoy the celebration with my friends.  Nervous that I'll let down people that are looking to me for strength and excited at the opportunity to make people proud.  But like everyone, I'll run.  It's what we do: my buddy Mike says it best, "Runners Run."

For those of us in Boston there are thousands that we're carrying alongside us, pushing and pulling us toward that finish line.  I am fortunate to work at a running store, able to share my passion for this thing we love with other people.  I draw so much strength from my local community of runners when they accomplish the goals laid out in front of them.  It's been overwhelming to hear the thoughts, well wishes, and excitement from people training for their first 5k through marathon.  They are with me.  To them I am a part of the iconic symbol that is this Boston Marathon.  We all are, and we all carry the thoughts, hopes, and dreams of many.  Monday we run.  Monday we'll carry the strength of everyone we've ever run alongside of, the strength of 36,000 people running to the same place, and the strength of literally millions that will be in attendance and watching. 

I'm just a guy sitting on a train headed for Boston. These are my thoughts.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Running Bum as Sad and Admirable

There is a thread on the message board right now about whether running bums are sad or admirable. I find the thread sort of fascinating because you can't really separate out the sadness from the nobility of it. Most arguments against building your life around running in your 20s make an instrumental argument about that part of life. If you decide to become a running bum, the argument goes, you are sacrificing your future potentialities. You will wake up some day in your mid- to late- 30s with sore achilles tendons and nothing to fall back on except 15 years spent working stocking shoes in a running store. Many posters find this sad, and it might actually be.

But it's exactly this thought that is the nobility of the running bum lifestyle: the thought that life is not fundamentally instrumental in nature, that the present ought not be sacrificed to an unknown future. The running bum forsakes imagined possibilities of midlife success for all sorts of real immediacies: the feeling of strength in the well-trained body; the simple and ascetic discipline of the running life; the brotherly clan of training partners; the sensations that others will never have a chance to know: the body working at a level that others could literally never imagine: clipping off 5 minute mile after 5 minute mile, effortlessly, flying.

We wake again and again to ourselves in the middle of life somehow, bound to a contract of habit that we don't remember signing. This is the case for everyone. The running bum's contract is different than most. He seems barely to have a grip on life, a grip that is certain to fade as his body fades, as the miles rack up, as the tendons degenerate, as the muscles lose their elasticity, and the crows feet spread out from eyes too used to staring out at horizons to find their focus beneath the florescence of office lights. His plans only involve circles, outs and backs, open roads, open sky and lost dogs in the dead of night.

The running bum intuits what the rest of us also know: life is short and it will fade for us all. In the end all instrumentalities of life, all the best-made plans, lead us all into the ground. His choice is noble, as it honors the present. He throws himself deeply into it without regard for futures beyond his experience.

This point comes for all of us, not just for running bums: the moment when we cease to trade the present for hopes only dimly imagined and decide to throw ourselves into the life that has chosen us. The moment feels something like this: we wake up one morning and find ourselves trapped by the choices we've made and by the path that fate bore us down. Life forces us to choose to be who we have become -- the recklessness and singularity of this choice is our only chance at freedom.

The running bum makes this choice to become who he is early in life, long before most people even realize that life (or, to speak honestly, death) will force this choice. It is strange to see someone choose a life so young, when they are still in formation, when most of us believe that we still have many lives to live beyond the one that will inexorably happen to us.

The lives of others are always sad and always admirable. Singularity is like that. We are sad for the losses that others must endure. We wish that they had made better choices. We mourn for the futures they could not live and hope to make better choices than they did. But at the same time we also admire the lives of others because they chose differently. They took paths we did not dare to take, made choices when we lacked courage. They became who they are, and the otherness of that choice beckons us out of the narrowness of our own perspectives.

The lives of others always reflect the singularity of our own life: the fact that this life is mine alone, and I have chosen it. I chose it sometimes sadly and blindly, sometimes nobly and deliberately, and sometimes without knowing which was which until much, much later, and sometimes without knowing at all.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

What Parenting and Running Have in Common: or why joy is more essential than happiness

In the fascinating and perceptive All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior takes a look at the cultural expectations surrounding parenthood, adulthood, and childhood. The book is fashioned out of a lovely mix of psychology, philosophy, sociology and real-world reporting, and while the drama of parenting is her ostensible subject, she uses this drama to explore even more fundamental questions. The book is not a manual for parenting; it's a book about the way we frame our lives and the narratives that support the answers we give to the hows and whys that face us down as parents and even as human beings.

The most interesting claim that she makes in the book is that the pursuit of happiness at the center of contemporary culture, enshrined in the Constitution, and a central guiding concept in parenting--we want our kids, more than anything, to be happy--is deeply problematic and a threat to other, more important, more achievable, and more satisfying human goals.

She explains that one of the first lessons of parenthood is that happiness is superficial, vague, and ill-defined. Study after study shows that becoming a parent does not lead to happiness. The people she interviews in the book make this case in all sorts of poignant ways. It's also clear that trying to make their children happy leads parents more often than not into paradoxes and difficulties and failures. Anyone who has tried to make someone else happy understands what a frustrating experience that can be. In fact, when we take happiness as a goal for ourselves, we end up making our selves miserable, more often than not.

Senior explains that contemporary culture misunderstands the nature of happiness when we take it as a goal. She allies herself with the Ancient Greeks, who saw happiness as an effect of a well-lived life, as a consequence of flourishing, rather than as an end to be pursued (Aristotle said famously that we could not know whether a man was happy until after his death.) She notes that the most powerful thing that children give us is a sense of this Greek ideal: a well lived life, formed out of duty and purpose. This duty and purpose structures the experience of living in a way that satisfaction is possible, not in an absolute sense, but in a series of concrete senses. Further, parenting gives us structured life in a way that connects us with other people, our children, our partner, our schools, other parents, community. So, the satisfactions that we get from fulfilling our duties as parents are shared satisfactions.

Senior sees parenting as one of the only human activities in the 21st century that allows us to combat a contemporary narrative that says that the purpose of life is to achieve happiness, painted as an internal and psychologically complete state. On the contrary, it paints a picture of life as a matter of family and communal flourishing and downplays the idea that life is about the maximizing of a solipsistic view of individual happiness. It refigures the purpose of life in terms of external attachments and duties, which can be actually measured and achieved in concert with others.

Runners ought to understand Senior's argument intuitively. She helps us articulate why an activity which from the outside (and even from the inside) involves a great deal of suffering, discipline, and is fundamentally painful and tiring (yes, running and parenting have a lot in common) is something that runners continue to do and even identify with. Runners and parents have a lot in common -- those who do not engage in these activities find them fundamentally annoying, don't get what the big deal is, and see parents/runners as masochistic and self-sacrificing.

Runners and parents also do a poor job of explaining why it is that they identify with these activities. We too often pride ourselves on our pain tolerance or paint what we do as self-sacrificing or more noble than other activities. This is why others find us annoying.

Running, parenting -- these things don't make us happier or more virtuous in themselves. They are not a direct path to self-improvement. But, they are activities that frame human activity in terms of duty and allow us to share those duties, with ourselves, with our peers, with our families. I think this is why we do not say that we do running or that we do parenting. Instead, we are runners; we are parents.

We are these things because they provide the duties and framework that allows us to see ourselves as connected, as attached, as beings with purposes and goals and the means to attain those goals or to fail at them. These rich activities (playing music, being married, deep friendship, working a career, being a neighbor) give us the very threads out of which we weave the patterns of our lives. In comparison to this quilt of real and shared responsibilities, happiness is a pale shadow, a mere consequence, a fleeting state.

Senior reminds us that what we want out of life is something more akin to joy than happiness. Joy erupts and fades; it is a feeling of flow, a sense that the structures of the universe -- or at least of our local environment -- are in line with our own being, a sense that we are magnified and larger than ourselves, connected in dynamic ways with experience, with others. Senior quotes GE Vaillant, saying that "Joy is grief turned inside out." Joy is the presence of what we grieve for when it is absent.

If happiness is too pale, inward, and controlled to be a life goal, joy is too vivid, outward, and wild. But articulating the value of life in terms of the one over the other says a lot about the types of experiences we frame for ourselves. The pursuit of happiness frames life as an inward mission towards a state of final internal satisfaction. Happiness is something we pursue and possess. The pursuit of joy frames life as a series of risks taken on behalf of hard-won, often lost, and mutual goals. Joy is never a possession: it's a celebration.

The runner, the parent, the human is never fully satisfied, but often experiences satisfaction. When we celebrate that satisfaction, for ourselves, with others, jubilantly -- when we grieve the loss of hard-fought battles -- we hardly notice ourselves, but for that very reason we are very much alive.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Defense of Academia

In 2004 I decided to leave my job as a high school teacher in a boarding school to go to graduate school in philosophy. My reasons for doing this were varied -- a mixture of naive idealism [maybe the study of philosophy will give me some insight into life] and real fatigue from the work of teaching young people [reading books and writing papers sounded pretty awesome at the end of yet another 15 hour day devoted to young folks.] My reasons had little to do with career. I was realistic about the instrumental value of a philosophy PhD. I hoped it would be a great way to spend a few years and left thoughts of Future Ramifications for Career to the gods.

Ten years have passed since that decision, and I am happy to report that it was a good one. A recent article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times  caused me to reflect a little on my nine year stint in academia as a graduate student, as a professor (though never tenured), as a writer and thinker, and as an educator. In the article, Kristof brings forward a common complaint these days that academia is insular and increasingly irrelevant. I mention this problem as reason for starting this blog, and I think it's worth noting that the insularity of academia is something that academics worry about much more than the general public.

Academics -- being driven people with high standards for themselves -- want to have it both ways. They want to be part of an intellectual elite, but they also want to be relevant to all. This is a tension that is written into the university life, and it's something that everyone in academia has to struggle with and make their peace with. Some are more comfortable with the elite end of things; others with the educational and "public service" aspect of intellectual work. My suspicion is that this tension is a productive one -- less a problem to be solved once and for all, and more an animating and productive sort of tension.

Individually, academics may struggle with these questions, but their temperaments eventually resolve it for them one way or another. Those who are educators at heart drift to the educational side. They end up writing more blogs, more editorials, engaging in more activism and land at smaller institutions where undergraduate education is central to the academic mission. Those who are intellectuals at heart end up at the big universities and spend most of their energy and time writing for top journals whose audience is a small group of elites. Then, there are a few rare souls who have the temperament, time, and talent to bridge the gap between these two sorts of academics and also the gulf between academia and a larger public world that likes to refer to itself as "the real world." These are the few that get to have it both ways -- probably at large personal cost.

Having left academia and returned to at least a real world if not the real world (my present job as academic dean of a high school asks me to communicate with all sorts of people with all sorts of educational backgrounds), I feel like I have something real to say about the gulf between academia and this "real world."

First: I find the work that I did while in my PhD program and then later as a professional philosopher to be extremely useful outside of academia. The qualities that make a good academic are useful in all kinds of contexts -- to trust in reasons, to listen to argument, to make distinctions, to disagree civilly, to write carefully. I lean on these capacities every day.

Second, I want to say that the work I did over the nine years I spent in a university philosophy department felt to me like it was fundamentally real and valuable in itself. While I decided not to spend my whole life as a professional philosopher, I was hugely enriched by spending a good chunk of my life doing this sort of work in a time when I was still growing as a young adult. I also allow myself to believe that I made a small contribution during those nine years to something I really believe in.

Yes, this experience was narrow and at times felt distant from certain realities. But, the ivory tower epithet has always struck me as a bit odd because it seems to me that the specialized careers we all lead in contemporary life subject us all fairly equally to a certain isolation and narrowness of perspective. Academics hope to speak out of their isolation towards public values -- thereby exposing themselves to the ivory tower critique -- but to my mind the attempt is virtuous, even if it so often fails. In a society of specialization we all ought to feel some anxiety about the reality of our worlds.

Finally, I just want to say that the pace and place of academic life, with its large blocks of time, its architecture that encourages interaction, the intensity of its push to think hard and well, and its care and concern for young people did not arise accidentally. It is the result of hard work and generous support of people from within and outside its walls. It's not a perfect world, but our world -- this real and fractured and hardly aware world --is more perfect because academia exists: fundamentally flawed, fragile, and necessary.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Promoting Belief in a Clean Sport: a look at the results of the letsrun clean/dirty poll

Recently carried out an interesting experiment. The polled their readers as to their perceptions of who in the sport was "clean" and who was "dirty." You can read the results of their poll here as well as an interesting explanation of why they decided to do this polling. Their explanation makes good sense to me: they state clearly that the results of the poll do not tell us whether someone used PEDs; they only tell us about a specific community's beliefs about who is clean and who is dirty.

What can we do with this information? Quite a bit, it turns out. We can look at the relationships between class, race, nationality, and beliefs about performance-enhancing drugs. We see that as a community we do have some degree of bias in these areas, but we also see that while these biases affect individuals; on the aggregate the beliefs of the community as a whole is not fundamentally skewed by any of these factors. notes that the most important bias affecting the data is "familiarity bias." Those athletes we are most familiar with are the athletes we are least likely to hold in suspicion.

The most surprising aspect of the data to me was the percentage of voters who thought that athletes were clean. Except for known dopers (say, the East German athletes of the '80s or the Chinese women of the mid-90s), relatively small percentages of fans thought that world record holders were dirty. Take a runner like Daniel Komen, who in 1996 at the height of the EPO era, ran perhaps the most incredible distance performance ever seen. Only 39% of voters believe that Daniel Komen used performance enhancing drugs -- yet you can see underneath the youtube video that the comments are dominated by discussion of PEDs.

This data is surprising because I thought that as a community we were more cynical than the numbers show. To explain this, perhaps we can draw an analogy between beliefs around PED use and beliefs in high schools and middle schools about the use of recreational drug and alcohol. Studies have shown that high school students use drugs and alcohol at rates far beneath what those same students believe is happening in their school. In other words, high schoolers have far healthier attitudes towards the use of drugs and alcohol than they believe they have. One of the most successful drug and alcohol non-profits, Freedom from Chemical Dependency capitalizes on this difference, noting that if actual attitudes towards drug and alcohol replace mythologies about use, then peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol could be drastically diminished. They call this approach the "social norms" approach, and it's worth reading about.

Likewise, it is possible that as a community, track and field fans are more likely to believe that "everyone dopes"-- just as high schoolers believe "everyone drinks"-- but that as individuals, we are much more likely to be nuanced and evidence-based in our analysis. In fact, I think that the polls show just this: that track and field fans do not generally hold the view that to reach the top levels of the sport, it is necessary to dope. As individuals, in the privacy of our homes, we believe the sport is healthier than we do when we participate in public discussion.

What does this mean for the actual use of PEDs? I think that has done a service for us through this poll because they have shown athletes that if they do things the right way, a vast majority of fans will believe that they are running their times clean. They have also showed fans that if we choose not to be cynical, we are not alone in that choice -- and that in reality, despite appearances to the contrary, the dominant social norm in the community of track and field fans is not to believe that every amazing performance is the result of cheating. The numbers show that while there will always be people who question every performance, there are many more who are willing to believe.

In short, I find the data encouraging, and I hope that it motivates fans and athletes to continue to believe that incredible performance without PED use is possible, that a clean sport is possible, and that if we adopt an attitude of cynicism and disbelief, we are in the minority. The data shows that hope for a clean sport is not only possible, but a majority opinion. While this hope does not mean that we will have -- or do have -- a clean sport, I do not think it is meaningless. It ought to reinforce belief in our better selves and reduce our cynicism. An adjustment of our social norms can allow us to re-animate work on behalf of a clean sport and remind us that we are not alone in the fight.
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