A haunting image of a man, broken and dying, slumped over his bike remains etched in my mind. The image comes from a flickering, black-and-white film which is in an alcove in the Welcome Trust’s Superhuman exhibition. It plays endlessly on loop, the man always dying, but never dead, kept alive as a grainy spectre to the fascination of the audience.
The film portrays Tommy Simpson, the British Tour-de-France cyclist who ‘rode himself to death’ in 1967 when the combination of the slopes of Mt Ventoux, the intense heat and the use of amphetamines allowed him push himself beyond what his body was capable of, resulting in his death. His death serves as a tragic and macabre symbol for the danger of drugs in sport, a theme which is itself explored in the exhibition.
It raises the question, ‘Where is the line to be drawn between beneficial aid and artificial enhancement?’ A question like this seems to be needed when it comes to almost every aspect of technical innovation, but perhaps that is the brilliant challenge which technology offers.
There are clear parallels between drug taking and altitude training: both endow performance-enhancing physiological benefits to the athlete: altitude training for an increase in red blood cell count, and drugs in a multitude of ways, too many to document here. Then there are sports drinks and gels; but gels and drinks do not change your being, they only give you a boost of extra energy. To that extent, they are natural. Then there are genetic advantages which could be considered as something to be handicapped. In this instance, however, that could lead to a ludicrous system of blame, excuse and little personal responsibility. The difference lies entirely in the natural benefits of the legal methods against the artificial nature of the benefits that drug use promotes. And this is a very important difference.
One of the fundamental benefits of sport is the way in which it promotes the body. An athlete has to push the boundaries of what he thinks he is capable of in his mind to coax the best performance out of his body, and that for many is the simple reason why sports – in particular, endurance sports – are so enthralling. When the best athletes in the world push themselves to the limit, it should serve as an inspiring model to the rest of society, especially as pampered as we are in the modern age of health-and-safety regulations and sedentary lifestyles.
The use of performance-enhancing drugs destroys this common ground between all people of all abilities, changing the focus from the extraordinary mental discipline of the athlete to the unnatural physicality that they represent. An athlete becomes something you sacrifice yourself to become, rather than something you elevate yourself to achieve. The beauty of sport lies in the human body: what we are capable of, and what we can achieve in ourselves. Drugs will always remain unneeded and unwelcome substances in sport.
Superhuman runs until 16 October.