Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Stronger fingers, more endurance, less body weight
I watched this movie, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster," yesterday and it got me thinking about the use of performance enhancing drugs in climbing. Fortunately to my knowledge, very few people in our sport engage is this sort of stuff. There are probably several main reasons. 1) there is not much money to be made in this sport, 2) the sport is less competitive than other sports, 3) climbers don't generally have lots of money to spend on this sort of thing, and 4) most climbers think pot is all the performance enhancement needed.
This movie focuses on the use of anabolic steroids in sports including weight lifting, baseball, and running. The movie tries to make a comment on American society in general, but I think it falls short in this aim. Instead it is just an interesting review of the pros and cons of steroid use. One interesting point is that there is very little medical evidence showing that steroid use is any more dangerous for a person than many over-the-counter drugs. It is 142 on the list of most common drugs related to ER visits - not very high (lower than asprin and multi-vitamins). Additionaly, there are few studies that link it to long term illness. It seems that the main reason the use of anabolic steroids is illegal is that use of them by prominent athletes sets a bad example for children.
Surprisingly, I came away from the movie thinking that steroids are really not that bad. I don't think I would ever use them because I don't like foreign substances in my body and I'm not too fond of needles. I'm glad that they are not really used in climbing because if they were, I think I would be more tempted to use them also. Even though climbing is a personal pursuit, most people end up measuring their accomplishments with respect to others. A big question is would steroids even help in a sport like climbing where strength to weight ratio is critical? I'm not sure they would be good for route climbing, but perhaps they could be beneficial for bouldering.
An even more controversial issue that will face sports in the near future is genetic modification. In the movie they show a cow that produces twice as much muscle as a normal cow because of a genetic modification. This cow is ridiculously ripped and takes no steroids or anything else. As genetic enhancements become prevalant - if they are legally allowed - it will be very hard to compare the athletic accomplishments of two individuals. Certainly harder things will be accomplished, but can you attribute the athlete or the geneticist? Of course genetics already play huge role in a sport like climbing - there are certain people who have the perfect body for climbing. This is the luck of the draw though and there are many examples of people with non-perfect genetics still excelling. But when bodies are crafted exactly for the sport, things may be different.
Climbing is lucky that it can be a strongly personal pursuit so people will always be able to try to improve upon their personal bests. Also one doesn't need to be pushing the limit to fully enjoy the sport. So the value of climbing will never be taken away. Still things could change. In some ways, this debate is similar to the debates around the use of chalk, sticky rubber shoes, cams, bolts, hangdogging, knee bar pads, etc. It seems to be of a different nature though. Any thoughts?