Racers achieve otherworldly feats. It's time to cut them some slack
It’s the golden age of drugs. Everyone takes them. All the drugs you think of—nicotine, weed, alcohol, et al—and all the ones that slip through our elastic definition of what a drug is. (The whipped-cream-topped liquid desserts Starbucks sells to fat-bottomed girls and boys are but a diabetes down-payment.) In failing to look at our role in the mess we’ve created our hypocrisy is galling—and nowhere is it more apparent than in our view of elite athletes.
Andrea Iannone's expression in this pre-season publicity still hints at something unsettling. In the past few months, we've learned why he was so pensive.
Regardless of discipline, the elite athlete is an aberration. As a hockey and lacrosse player in my teens, I was just good enough to cross paths—briefly—with exceptionally good players on the way up. I was at such a competitive disadvantage that had I not been gifted with a teenager’s (unwarranted) hubris, I’d have quit sports on the spot.
I once rode pillion with former 250 and 500 cc world champion Freddie Spencer at his (now shuttered) riding school. Spencer’s smoothness, precision, and unfathomable-to-me comprehension of the limits of traction left me astonished. And demoralized. It pained me that, next to Spencer, I would forever remain a hack. There is no comparison between us and them.
Don’t be fooled into thinking a MotoGP rider’s primary asset is conditioning—fitness is the least of an athlete’s advantages. Spencer, when I rode with him, was a softening middle-aged man far from his peak. The MotoGP rider, with the resources to employ trainers and nutritionists, maintains a swimmer’s strength and a runner’s leanness, but in gyms across the land you’ll find men and women equally fit. Top riders possess something so elusive that language fails to describe it, let alone explain it.
An elite racer is able to manipulate time as if it were a Plasticine block stretched by a child to twice its original length. How else can you explain the near-crashes and astonishing saves by Marc Marquez? Watching Marquez sidestep a crash at racing speed offers little insight. But slow the footage, and we’re able to witness his body counteracting the motorcycle’s wayward tendencies. In elongating time, Marquez buys the time to react. Describing it as racer’s instinct is insufficiently illuminating—great racers have received nothing less than an alchemic software upgrade.
That these feats emanate from a body similar to yours or mine seems an impossibility. And yet, when it comes to injuries, the talented are just as susceptible as the talentless to suffering. Recently retired MotoGP rider Dani Pedrosa, at a miniscule 5’ 2”, will undoubtedly feel the effects of injuries as he ages. He fractured his humerus, distal phalanx, wrist, fibula, and collarbone (twice). He suffered from arm pump, a mangled middle finger, a side tear, a deep knee wound and an ankle distortion. And the injures listed are solely on the right side of Pedrosa’s body. His left side list of woe is equally long.
Now imagine training, travelling, testing, and racing with that body. Year after year. And every season a youthful crop of Moto2 and Moto3 graduates gun for your job. Would you climb aboard a machine capable of 340 km/h without anything to cut the pain? I wouldn’t. And, based on societal rates of addiction, you wouldn’t either.
Who doesn’t love watching a motorcycle racer crash? As motorcyclists we’re loathe to admit it, but it’s the equivalent of the hockey fight. No place in the game for it, say critics, while the clip of the fight remains on high rotation. Marquez’s highlight reel of catastrophe is a must watch. He crashed 27 times in 2017 and 23 times in 2018. He won the title both years. (Marquez, prudently, crashes mostly in practice, testing, and qualifying.) We revel in his saves and take delight in his ability to cheat disaster.
Aprilia MotoGP rider Andrea Iannone has been suspended by governing body FIM for violating antidoping rules. Iannone’s urine from this season’s Malaysian round contained traces of anabolic steroids, claim the FIM. Unless he can summon proof that he unknowingly ingested the drug, he faces a four-year ban. For 30-year-old Iannone, it’s a career ender.
Iannone is not Marc Marquez. Iannone is a rider on the cusp of oblivion. He’s a difficult teammate (his future at Ducati ended the day he punted his teammate off the track in the last corner of the last lap in Argentina in 2016). He’s vain (the European press were ruthless when word of his cosmetic surgery leaked), and, seemingly, he’s more interested in his social media profile than he is with pushing the mediocre Aprilia further up the timesheets.
Steroids burn fat, build muscle, and reduce inflammation. They’re ideal for the narcissist and the racer. But do they give a motorcycle racer a competitive advantage? If you’re a bicyclist, a boxer, or a shot-putter, steroids make a difference. But how strong, at 112 pounds, is Dani Pedrosa?
Gene Romero (left) and Gary Nixon were hard men from a wild time in motorcycle racing. In the freewheeling '70s, few governing bodies would have wanted to know what was coursing through the veins of the riders on the grid.
Drug testing motorcycle racers has nothing to do with our concern for their wellbeing and everything to do with a quaint notion of “fairness.” But motorcycle racing isn’t fair. Just like life isn’t fair. Qualifying, which precedes every race, is merely an apparatus to give the fastest riders a head-start over the slowest. And Marquez’s otherworldly skills are so much greater than the rest of the grid that Iannone, irrespective of drugs ingested or machine straddled, will never keep pace.
Iannone’s failed steroid test is a red herring. Ben Spies, during his MotoGP career, suggested testing the top half-dozen finishers every weekend. But there’s a reason they don’t do that. Painkillers are the reason. The argument is an old one. If you can’t pull your boots on but an injection into your ankle allows you to break the top 10, is that performance enhancement or, as MotoGP would have you believe, merely pain abatement?
Without drugs, two-thirds of the way into a MotoGP season, we’d see grids half-filled with replacement riders. But no-name riders are bad for business. We want the stars. And we want to believe they’re drug free, just like we want the porn star’s orgasm to be genuine; we’d rather not think about her as a woman with a husband, a pair of kids, and a mother in Des Moines crushed by the shame of her daughter’s profession.
MotoGP’s war on drugs will, likely, sacrifice Iannone. But we don’t care about him. Iannone, in his vanity, in his clinging to a career, in the great unknown about to consume him, is far too much like us in our pettiness, worry, and fear of the future. Give us Rossi’s free spirit, the rookie’s run of raw good luck, or Marquez’s aw-shucks brilliance (in which he’s as astonished as onlookers at his antics). When it comes to fantasy, there’s no place in it for a man about to be cut down from twisting in the wind.