12 February 2009

SIR "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*"

As you can tell, plowing through the endless, ponderous jeremiads about steroids in the mainstream press can be a tedious task. Luckily, I came across Christopher Bell's documentary "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" at just the right time.

Bell's first film is a thoughtful, personal look at steroids and the American way. Both of Bell's brothers are bodybuilding enthusiasts who have been taking steroids most of their adult lives, and Bell effectively weaves these biographical touches into a broad examination of the country's double-secret fascination with performance-enhancing drugs. Indeed, while we claim to abhor chemical "cheating" in others, we subconsciously excuse it for ourselves. Remember the Olympics during the Cold War, when Americans scoffed at the obviously-enhanced East Bloc athletes? Turns out we were only jealous of their quality of juice.

The world of performance-enhancing drugs comes out properly muddled in Bell's film, which should rightfully leave you asking more questions than it answers. He presents voices arguing for the effectiveness of moderate steroid use, and notes that very little concrete information about the long-term effects of use is really known. Bell shows how we hand out prescriptions for human growth hormone under the guise of slowing the effects of age, and how our Air Force pilots are given amphetamine stimulants, the only scenario of its kind in the world. Even concert musicians take beta blockers to relax. And he only scratches the surface of the wildly unregulated dietary supplement industry. For a people who claim to be against chemically-enhanced performance, we sure do a lot of it.

Ultimately, it's this kind of doublethink that's necessary to hold up the illusion of the American dream. Bell recalls being a child watching an interview with Hulk Hogan in which Hogan exhorts youngsters to "work hard, say your prayers, and take your vitamins," and they, too, could get a body like his. This is a lie, of course, but it's not functionally different from the lie that America values fairness and rewards people with the honest ingenuity to earn their own way in life. We're required to keep up this belief in the national mythology in public, but behind closed doors we all know you're expected to step on fingers, cut corners, and use every cutthroat tactic you can find to crush your neighbors and win that coveted label of "successful."