Citizens of Sporting Empire

"There is in the temporality of words an almost poetic play of death and rebirth: successive metaphorizations mean that an idea becomes more — and something other — than itself: a 'form of thought'. For language thinks, thinks us and thinks for us at least as much as we think through it. And in it an exchange also takes place: an exchange, which may be symbolic, between words and ideas." — Jean Baudrillard, Passwords

Baudrillard's words assumed added significance for me this past week as the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) announced the introduction of a "biological passport" system in cycling as a weapon in the war against doping in cycling. As ESPN writes:

The "biological passport," first announced by UCI last week, would monitor a series of blood parameters of a rider and create a medical profile that could be used for comparison after doping tests.

UCI president Pat McQuaid cautioned that the initiative, to take effect in January, will not erase the doping problem but serve as a new element in the anti-doping "arsenal" along with blood and urine tests.

"For each rider, you'll have an individual set of parameters that are his norm … his blood parameters. There is a norm — and above and below, it can only go a certain distance," he said.

Historically, a passport existed as a document from the king or queen designed to grant safe passage from one territory to another. As the Wikipedia entry points out, however, it is not the passport that guarantees these rights; rather, it is one's nationality that does. In facilitating safe passage the passport serves to demonstrate a right to nationhood, or in other words, to establish an identity.

The idea of a passport is moving beyond nationhood into other spaces, both real and virtual. An example of the latter is the Microsoft Passport universal authentication system, which allows for the safe passage of an internet surfer through a connected series of web sites. Though our physical bodies weren't moving anywhere, the idea of a system that established and safeguarded a unitary virtual identity as it navigated through the various spaces of the network intuitively made sense. (The system, which perhaps smacked of Orwellian overtones to those in the Microsoft marketing department — "Papers, please." — has recently been rebranded as Windows Live).

The question of individual identity remains central with the biological passport. VeloNews, a leading cycling website, adds:

"What is means is that the rider becomes his own reference point," UCI anti-doping coordinator Anne Gripper told Eurosport. "We look for variations in a rider's individual profile to determine whether there may be some indication of using a prohibitive method or a prohibited substance."

A normal passport contains information that identifies the individual, as well as other special features not easily duplicated (holograms, special papers and inks, etc.) that serve to establish the identity of a particular nation-state. An equivalence is drawn between individual and nation-state in the form of citizenship. As we see with Gripper's comments, there is no corresponding equivalence drawn between individual and nation-state for passports in the smooth space of sporting Empire; the equivalence is always drawn back upon itself: one person, two points in time.

The disciplinary societies have two poles: the signature that designates the individual, and the number or administrative numeration that indicates his or her position within a mass. This is because the disciplines never saw any incompatibility between these two, and because at the same time power individualizes and masses together, that is, constitutes those over whom it exercises power into a body and molds the individuality of each member of that body. (Foucault saw the origin of this double charge in the pastoral power of the priest–the flock and each of its animals–but civil power moves in turn and by other means to make itself lay "priest.") In the societies of control, on the other hand, what is important is no longer either a signature or a number, but a code: the code is a password, while on the other hand disciplinary societies are regulated by watchwords (as much from the point of view of integration as from that of resistance). The numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it. We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become "dividuals," and masses, samples, data, markets, or "banks" (Deleuze, 1991).

Instead of the passport photo (individual) and unique identification number used in a nation of citizens (mass), the new biological passport uses an athlete's organic markers such as blood and urine (dividual), though they only make sense in comparison to a larger set of modeled data points (bank). With the photo on a traditional passport, there is a range of error between the original photographic signifier and the appearance of the individual when passing through the checkpoint (change of hair style or colour, weight gain or loss, the addition of glasses or facial hair, etc.). In this case it is contingent upon the authority securing passage through the checkpoint to interpret if the second data point falls acceptably within this range of error. As McQuaid notes above, with the biological passport system there is also a range of error between the blood or urine samples at the time of competition and the original signifier in the passport. However, this acceptable range of error is determined through statistical methods; that is, by combining samples from hundreds of athletes in a database to derive acceptable distributions into which a future data point must fall to be considered allowable. Normalization becomes adherence to a statistically-correlated cluster of data points.

In the temporality of words an almost poetic play of death and rebirth … Baudrillard's words resonate anew in our present discussion. For in metaphorizing this particular anti-doping mechanism as a "passport", we must wonder whatever happened to the original meaning of the passport as a document that ensures safe passage through some boundary or barrier into an enclosure. What is the role of passage in the UCI's biological passport system? We are not discussing passage into the enclosed space of the sportscape; the testing takes place either out of competition or after competition is completed. So from and to where do we pass?

It appears that there is no passage anymore; with the biological passport of sporting production we have moved strictly into the realm of identification, its basis in biometrics, and a unitary identification of "normal" body performance. The occasional passage into or through some enclosed, disciplinary space provides the alibi for control to continue making its presence felt in an unnoticed fashion.

If there is still a passage to be found, it is a passage through time, referring back always to some fixed marker. UCI and WADA are basically requiring that the athlete claim passage post-competition into an "authentic" and essential identity. Today, blood and urine samples on file in the sporting battle against steroids and other pharmaceutical enhancers; tomorrow, DNA samples on file in the sporting battle against gene doping. This continual reference back to an original biological marker as identity document leads us inexorably closer to the Gattaca Scenario — and passage becomes a permanent state of immanence.


10 responses to Citizens of Sporting Empire

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  1. Cody Vandommele says:

    The idea of bringing a biological passport into sport creates an ethical and a very controversial issue. Having a biological passport assumes that the body is a static thing which is not true because the body is dynamic and always changing and evolving. This doesn’t allow the body to change or improve because athletes bodies will be held within a certain range and falling outside the range will result in an accusation of cheating, even though that may not be the case. This idea is a very invasive procedure as well because it proposes a 24/7 monitoring of athletes bodies. In my mind, cheating will always exist because for every researcher trying to stop doping, there are probably five researchers trying to develop new ways to dope and mask doping. It will be a constant battle and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight. Another reason that I believe doping is never going to end is because doping benefits almost everyone except the athlete. Media companies make money off of the coverage of doping stories, pharmaceutical companies profit from selling the substances, and many others benefit as well. I do not condone cheating at all but as we move along, anti-doping mechanisms are just going to get more intrusive and cover more sports, that sport will be too highly regulated.

  2. Kevin Paquette says:

    I find it very interesting that cycling is the testing grounds for so many anti-doping rules and regulations. It is interesting because essentially, the sport consists of two items; the bicycle and the engine. Now, when we look at the evolution of the bicycle, vast improvements are noted. The use of carbon fibre frames to reduce weight and increase compliance and stiffness. The use of carbon fibre wheels to reduce rotational mass. The use of body geometry saddles to aid in the prevention of pelvic discomfort and numbness. The use of sealed, ceramic bearings allows the bikes to roll further. The list could go on, but it all boils down to vast improvements in bicycle design. So, in a sport where technological development is met with open arms, why are anti-doping regulations so strict? Will a rider who adopts the "Living High, Training Low" method fail to meet passport criteria at a low-altitude race? It seems to me that if the bicycle evolves at such a rapid rate, then so should the engine. It seems as if the UCI wants to try and equalize the field of riders, just like NASCAR attempts with their engine regulations. However, if you were to propose the idea of every rider using the same bike, you would most certainly not be met with open arms. So what does it all mean? Make anti-doping regulations less stringent, give riders more freedom, and allow for the development of the human potential to match that of the bicycle.

  3. Allison Huston says:

    The biological passport is an interesting idea, I think it is a good idea to use the individual athletes blood and urine as a marker for them. The only concern I have with the biological passport is that fact that what if the athletes body changes. As mentioned above, the same problem occurs with passports of nationality, people change their hair colour, grow a beard, loses/gains weight and the person granting them access to the country has to use their best judgment. Just as a persons body can change the athletes body may be doing the same thing. As they train and become more fit the biological levels in their body will change. What if they were tested at a bad time in their season or they were to the extreme of fit, but later during a race/competition they are sick or have lost some of their stamina, that could effect their scores. As much as the margin of error will cover that, what if the person reading the tests does not feel it fits into the margin, but really the athlete hasn’t taken any performance enhancing substance. The UCI better make sure they have the test perfected before they use it.

  4. Josh Friesen says:

    It's suprising to me (and correct me if i am mistaken) that rules about doping this invasive can be put in place by WADA and the UCI without any type of Government legislation. I realize that the issue of internationalism (having riders from all different countries) posses a problem, but this borders on violating the charter of rights and freedoms for Canadian cyclists. If police need a warrant to enter a persons home then what gives the UCI the right to randomly test athletes. This is a very interesting situation, I understand that all this is being done in the name of fair play and trying to create an equal playing field for all cyclists. However, this is a very slippery slope. Once we open the door to these type of invasive identification systems it's only a matter of time before they penetrate society further and further. Especially with what we know about social learning, while this instance may seem a ways away from the Gattica example, the time frame is quite irrelevant. If we are good citizens we should care about the world not only today but also the world that we leave our grandchildren and future generations (an environmentalists worldview) than we have to take action agaisnt even seemingly small threats to agency that could potentially jeopordize our freedom. Gattica may be the best example, but nineteen eighty four and V for vendetta also come to mind as other "big brother" sleeper societies of what this whole idea of a biological passport and having DNA on file for identification seem to point to. If they can keep your blood on file and test you whenever they choose, how long before you need to have a biological identification system to withdraw money from the bank? or use your debit card? or maybe we'll just get micro chips placed in our wrists with our very own unique identification number that no one else has but you! Once we become comfortable with the idea in sports it will be easily transferable to other aspects of society. Do you know Sean, is there anything we can do to protest this?

  5. Nikki Zouros says:

    Doping regulations bring about many ethical issues…on both sides of the table. Yes, most regulations are invasive and the justification by sport federations is for the protection of the athletes, the sport in general and wider society. Sport ethics boards require athletes to inform them of where they live, where they train, how they train, who they train with, where they work. Athletes must report changes in living situations, training methods and locations, vacations. As a society we are protective of our individual rights and would never accept these requirements in any of our employment, yet we hold athletes to higher standards. Why? Is it because they represent drive and determination for excellence? Don't we all strive to achieve excellence in our own lives? Why is their excellence so different? It has been suggested (Miah, 2006) that athletes waive some of their individual rights and accept the restrictions when they choose to participate in the social realm of sport.
    The idea of a biological passport is interesting and, as always in ethical issues, a double-edged sword. When doping violations occur, the sample is compared to general norm. Ideally, this method would identify abnormal levels of substances (natural and unnatural). But we do not live in an ideal world. Athletes are human and thus each one has a genotype that controls gene expression, making some taller than others, some more muscular than others, etc. The idea that we can compare each individual to one norm is rediculous. This is where the biological passport can be useful. By comparing a sample to an athlete's own baseline measures makes far more sense than comparing it to some mythical ideal. For example, before the use of blood doping to increase red blood cells became common, there was an issue with one of the nordic cross-country skiers. He consistently tested with high levels of red blood cells…more than what was considered "normal". It was speculated that he was blood doping until genetic research into his family revealed that more than 60% of his familial relatives also maintained very high red blood cell counts. With the use of a biological passport, an individual's own standard can be used to test against.
    The theory is that this will prevent false accusations, but I don't think that false accusations will disappear. testing of blood and urine is done by humans and thus is subject to mistakes from time to time. Efforts are taken to prevent this, but we are not perfect.
    Above, it is suggested that a passport implies that the body is static. I disagree. Just as an athletes address, training location and methods are updated when changes are made, the biological passport may also be subject to change. A national passport that allows you to travel expires after a given period of time and must be reapplied for. Why should the biological passport not be managed in a similar manner? If the athlete moves or changes their training methods why should the biological passport not also change?
    I am divided on this issue. As citizens we are subject to restrictions placed upon us in the social realm. We too give up some of our individual rights in order to respect and value those of others. Athletes are certainly individuals and should be privy to the same individual rights as anyone else. But since sport and competition are social practices, when you compete you must give up some individual rights in order to respect the rights of others. But where do we draw the line?

  6. Vanessa Neto says:

    This idea of a “biological password” is interesting and debatable. On the one hand, I am a member of society and as a member I feel that a substance-free athlete is a necessity. I actually find myself accepting and embracing this idea of a passport. With the constant creation of new methods that attempt to achieve higher performance levels then possible through training alone, I feel there is an urgent need to put an end to this. It is scientists who create these drugs and other scientists trying to detect these drugs. Our current system is clearly not working. We live in a society where “stronger, faster, higher” are valued and this puts pressure on our athletes to break records. To believe that sport can actually be substance-free would be naïve, but I believe the passport would catch a lot a cheaters.

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