Doping With Oxygen

The other day I happened across some remarks on the web congratulating someone for having climbed Mount Everest. Of course, and as is the norm, the protagonist made his way up there having hired guides, who fixed the ropes he ascended, who supplied oxygen, who mitigated the risk, who engaged local help to carry his gear and set up the camps where he slept.

One can argue that climbing is an individual sport and "he" did not climb the mountain. One might argue with equal vigor that him standing on the summit was the result of teamwork and that mountaineering is a team sport.

I could agree with the notion that it's a team sport on some levels, and that fixed ropes can have a place in some forms of climbing however the use of oxygen has no place, is cheating and overrules all other claim to achievement. Supplemental O2 is doping - without question. It is not a medical necessity, which is proven by many, many ascents of 8000m peaks without supplemental O2.

Why isn't supplemental oxygen viewed as doping? Some argue that it is a safety issue, that they do not want to take the risk of altitude illness, or frostbite. They want to, "experience climbing Everest," but can't or won't confront the challenge naturally so they modify that experience by boosting their own performance. If O2 allows one to accomplish a task that he or she otherwise could not do or was not willing to do then O2 is a performance-enhancing drug and should be treated as such.

Sadly, when someone who has climbed Everest with the aid of supplemental O2 and a "servant" to carry the extra bottles and prepare the route tells a rapt audience of non-climbers that he climbed Everest that is all he says. He fixates on the outcome and not the means used to achieve it. And if the audience isn't well-informed enough to ask about the means the speaker lets the omission slide, allowing them to think better of him.

A decade and more ago I cared deeply about the way we climbed more than whether we were successful. We tried to address naturally existing challenges with a minimum of technological advantages and tried over and over to answer the question, "How light is too light?" If we had learned the answer through actual experience I wouldn't be writing this. We came real close though.

Now I see supplemental oxygen as part of a much larger problem. As human beings, familiar with the history of the species and its potential, we dearly want to believe in extraordinary human performance. Many genuine, rare and truthful accomplishments paved the way for our belief in what might be done. Back in the day when something amazing was reported our first response was awe, inspiration, and maybe the brakes we placed on ourselves slackened a bit.

Times have changed. Cheating is commonplace and doping is rampant, even at the lowest levels of sport. When I look across a variety of disciplines it is apparent that no one is special and no one is immune: when a group of human beings get together some percentage of them are going to cheat or be susceptible to the idea of it. Sadly, it appears this is true for any sport and at some point our habit as an athlete or spectator becomes one of distrust. These days most great accomplishments call up a voice inside urging skeptical review.

People lie on resumés and cheat on tests to get jobs - not caring that they won't be able to  DO  the job if they get it. Amateur athletes lie about their accomplishments to invite positive social feedback - without caring that a lie is being praised, instead accepting the praise out of context. Pro athletes cheat to win, or to stay competitive against other cheaters, and do so for both money and prestige. Eventually they convince themselves the dope didn't help, that they deserved the medal, the reward, the status. That doping is so common has changed how we respond to the announcement of a spectacular performance or achievement.

Sadly, our skeptical reaction further imprisons us within the limitations we set for ourselves or accept from others who set limits for us. If we greet every great performance with suspicion what becomes of its potential to inspire? What means will we use to unlock our own potential? Who will plant the guideposts along the trail? What new level of performance by one or two individuals will free the hundreds struggling just beneath them?

This is what the cheaters have done to us. It is why we must expose and oppose them whenever it is possible.

Mark Twight
Mark Twight