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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The right to self-destruction

Translation of El derecho a destruirse by Javier Cercas published in El País Semanal on 4-Dec-2005.

I read in an article by Juan José Fernández that Ines Geipel, an athlete from the old (East) German Democratic Republic, had asked that her athletic records be erased from the official lists, among them the 4x100 meter German relay record. The reason for this unusual request is well known: it appears that the sportsmen and women of the GDR, like those of the other eastern communist countries, had been forced to take prohibited substances for years to improve their performances. This explains why some world records achieved twenty years ago (between 1983 and 1988 there were 12 women's world records set) have still not been surpassed. It also explains why some countries, amongst them Germany, have been obliged to compensate past elite sportsmen and women who contracted serious illnesses following these forced doping programmes.

At first sight, Ines Geipel's gesture, apart from being a bit public, not to say theatrical, seems commendable; but it is completely foolish. Although there was the suspicion that Geipel, who is now a university professor and president of the German Authors' Circle, had taken drugs because she suffered bulimia and serious obesity problems after retiring as an athlete, her statement now leaves no doubt. But I have to confess that I have never understood the subject of doping, a subject that didn't only affect the old communist countries but one which is still alive everywhere and in all sports. Of course it is not acceptable that sportsmen and women should be forced to take drugs or be drugged without their knowledge, with all the consequences that this entails. But what if they themselves decide to take drugs to improve their performance (as also happened in the communist countries)? We know the usual arguments against doping. First, the people who takes drugs are cheats because they are artificially improving their performances and putting other competitors at a disadvantage. Second, those who drug themselves are putting their health in danger, perhaps even their lives. The first argument lacks consistency: if all sportsmen and women could take drugs, that is to take the most suitable substances that would help their bodies give the best of themselves, then all would be competing on an equal footing and no one would be disadvantaged. This is why Geipel's gesture was foolish: all German athletes of her period were taking drugs, therefore they all competed under the same conditions and so her record should stand. As regards the second argument, that it harms their health, there is no doubt that it is true, but that is not a sufficient reason to ban drugs because, in a free society, every one should have the right to put their own health at risk, up to and including self destruction, provided that they are not harming others. There may be more worthy reasons for putting one's health in danger than attempting to lower an athletics record by half a second, but this is not a sufficient reason to prevent someone doing so if this is what they have decided.

Don't take offence at my remarks. Think what would happen if we eliminated the achievements that have been obtained with the assistance of drugs by politicians, journalists, by businessmen and by athletes. Consider the writers. Graham Greene wrote that at the end of the thirties he was regularly taking Benzedrine to maintain his artistic level. The result of this was that during this period he wrote The Confidential Agent and finished The Power and the Glory; he also fell into a bottomless depression that ended his marriage and almost succeeded in ending his own life. Greene's example is not, of course, the only one. In fact, the history of literature hardly includes the name of any writer who did not take some kind of drug and I myself know of only two novelists, J.M. Coetzee and Kazuo Ishiguro, who are capable of lasting the whole of a literary cocktail party without a drink. Agreed that Ishiguro and Coetzee are two of the best, but what should we do about the others? Will be insist that The Confidential Agent and The Power and the Glory are removed from the libraries because they were written under the influence of Benzedrine? Should we ban the complete works of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway and Samuel Beckett and Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner because they were written with the help of massive doses of alcohol? And what would happen if we subjected politicians, journalists businessmen and artists to drug tests?

How many constitutions and treaties, how many newspapers, how many businesses, how many paintings and sculptures would remain after drug testing? On the subject of doping in sport, hypocrisy reaches absurd heights. And please don't come back at me with the foolishness that sportsmen and women should be setting an example for our young people: if athletes, then how much more should politicians, journalists, businessmen, artists and writers be setting an example. Life is a risky sport and we have built our civilization of the basis of destroying ourselves with drugs and anything else that comes to hand. Banning drugs from sport is turning our backs on civilization.

[Translator's note.
For drugs in sport, the testing procedures are not 100% secure, so I wonder how many sports lives have been needlessly wasted by errors in the tests and incorrect interpretation of results, including genuine mistakes by athletes. For drugs in general, a huge proportion of crime that occurs only occurs because the governments have decided to deny people the right to choose for themselves. It is the role of governments to inform and educate people about drug taking, and yes, to pick up the pieces afterwards if requested, not to take it upon themselves to decree what is good and bad when the only people harmed by drug taking are the individuals who takes the drugs.]


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