THE SEMEN OF HERCULES
THOSE PARAGONS OF ATHLETIC PURITY, THE ANCIENT GREEKS, MAY NOT HAVE TAKEN ANABOLIC STEROIDS—BUT THEY DID EAT ETHIOPIAN DIRT, PIGLET’S MILK, AND THE BLOOD OF A TICK FOUND ON A BLACK DOG.
It’s been a tough year for sports purists. The 2004 return of the Olympic Games to Greece, the hallowed land of their ancient birth in 776 B.C.E., didn’t exactly herald a return to a nobler age: sadly, the Athens extravaganza will be remembered more for its endless doping scandals, with more than twenty athletes failing urine tests, than for the glory of its record-setting performances. Even the International Olympic Committee’s nostalgic idea of holding the shot put contests inside the original stadium, where the Hellenic events were held for nearly twelve centuries, turned into a PR fiasco when the winner of the women’s gold medal, Russian Irina Korzhanenko, tested positive for anabolic steroids. (Of course, the ancient Greeks wouldn’t have allowed women to compete at the Olympic Games in the first place, or even be in the audience, but that’s another matter.)
Since that symbolic moment, the floodgates have opened, at least here in the United States, where the doping scandals have been piling up with monotonous regularity—in Major League Baseball, in the pro-cycling circuit, even in the Kentucky Derby. Such devious behavior seems a far cry from the classical Greek ideal of athletics, which aimed to elevate the human spirit while perfecting the body. Ancient sculptures like the Discus Thrower portrayed the Apollonic moral purity of sporting champions, who according to the Greek author Lucian had a sacred gift, and were even “equal to the gods themselves.” Despite this, the Greeks had their own equivalent of doping scandals, involving magic potions, charms, and spells—enchanted performance-enhancers that were impossible to regulate, without anything like our modern urine tests to keep contestants honest.
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