What do we count as the biggest sporting day in Australia? Is it the AFL grand final? Maybe the NRL grand final? What about Melbourne Cup?
There are many reasons why it’s not recommended for cyclists to take pain-killers. There are also many reasons why it’s not recommended to drag your body 1200 kilometres in the saddle each week, drink coffee to avoid the symptoms of horrendous fatigue, and strive for three per cent body fat.
This comparison isn’t supposed to condone the consumption of pain-killers in sport, but to highlight how blurred the idea of ‘responsibility’ within professional sport actually is.
Endurance sports require athletes to physically hurt and suffer as much as possible, so the ability to block that pain and ‘push harder’ should come naturally. Delving into the ambiguity of physiology is another natural oath for the endurance athlete, questioning what our bodies are telling us and striving to cure those inefficiencies.
As we start to render what potential we have and desire to be faster than we are, physiology becomes the centre of attention. The uncertainty that this biophysical enquiry provides us ultimately results in confusion.
This ‘confusion’ means that even doctors can’t tell me why I cramp in my hip flexor, or what is causing that little rash behind my left knee. The human body is the pinnacle of evolutionary reduction, a battle of the most ‘selfish genes’, and we’re not even close to understanding its complexity is full.
Transient substances, like pain-killers, therefore become rife in sport where the frustration of physiological confusion leads to the search for a quick-fix. The uncertainty of how pain-killers negatively affect our bodies in the long run contrasts with the perceptible benefits of these substances in the short run. It only reiterates their desirability.
As our perception so often fails us, we cannot sense what negative effects we are suffering nearly as clearly as we can perceive those that feel positive. Consider the specific resistance to stress and impenetrable self-confidence that a world-class athlete’s body possesses, and the perceived negative health effects are reduced even more.
As pain-killers are essentially just sensory masking-agents, alternative solutions are hard to find due to the speed and ease of the ‘quick fix’.
It could be argued that using meditation to ascertain the same pain relief as a couple of drops of Tramadol, would take many years of stringent focus and hard work, which might not suit a contemporary lifestyle. Like mastering anything in life, genuine ability and skill comes through hard work and thorough concentration.
The general ease of consumption means pain-killers last only a relatively short time. Similar to how coffee blocks our perception of fatigue and allows us to avoid the sensations of feeling tired, pain-killers block our perception of pain through the neural pathways between our muscles and mind.
Pain-killers have been said to disturb our insulin response, hassle our stomachs, have diuretic effects on our hydration, and allow our extension past healthy limits of exhaustion (to passing out for example), as well as other possible side-effects depending on physiology.
But through the opaque screens of sensory perception it remains hard to see reasons not to take pain-killers in the cut-throat moments of professional sport. It’s only logical that if a body cannot feel the detrimental health effects it would be hard to convince ourselves that medication actually has a dark flip-side.
In conjunction with obsessive compulsive, neurotic nature of a cyclist’s lifestyle, the added reliance of sufficient pain relief in a tablet is problematic. They can be addictive.
I don’t condone the use of these drugs, but it’s easy to see how one could convince themselves of the relative harmlessness in the moment. It’s a conversation that needs to continue when the world anti-doping association(s) work through the social implications.
The pressure felt by athletes that leads them to artificially block their pain is an intrinsic trait of sport. This pressure, derived from a system of social applause allowed for athletes and their performances, is what makes sport as exhilarating as we know it to be.
As we construct this idea of ‘success’ in our minds, the ambiguity of health detriment compared with loss of a potential victory and a moment (or lifetime) of fame, pales into insignificance, especially when that detriment is intangible.