Cheaters killed our ability to be amazed

Four years ago, I sat in Omaha in what can only be described as a chlorine-induced state of awe. I had watched Dara Torres, at age 41, swim faster than she had at any point in her career, and do so despite recently having a baby.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was less than a year away from having my own baby girl, and was susceptible to this narrative of Supermom. So I wrote about Torres and being inspired and the power of never giving up on your dream.

I woke up the next morning to a Pat Forde column about Torres and the necessity of disbelief in the face of the unbelievable. And I was furious for not writing that myself.

This is not a condemnation of Torres, who as far as I know has never tested positive for a single banned substance. This is an explanation of how sports have arrived at this point, what I like to call the death of amazement. We are in such a rush to preemptively call BS on any and all achievements, lest we look like fools later, that we have lost our ability to be amazed.

And in this sports age of Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong and now Joe Paterno, a healthy dose of cynicism is probably appropriate.

Which is great except, as I watched swimming in Atlanta recently, I was reminded of how many athletes have been training their butts off for most of the past four years for the express written purpose of doing something amazing in the 2012 Olympics in London.

Records will fall. Amazing will happen. And we will be skeptical.

“With things like Twitter and Facebook and blogging, there are just so many cynical people out there throwing out their opinion and sometimes it is accurate. I mean, unfortunately, people do try to sometimes cheat,” Olympic gold medalist Natalie Coughlin said as we talked after a meet in which she was a part of a world record-breaking relay.

Coughlin is exactly the type of athlete we could find ourselves being inspired by, if we were into that sort of thing anymore. She is an exceptional athlete, a great ambassador for the sport, unfailingly honest and nice but not in a saccharine way.

So it feels weird to think she inspires any skepticism ever.

"The people who have cheated have ruined it for everybody," Coughlin acknowledged. “That is just the way it is.”

This is not only about steroids, which I do not think fans care about anymore, if they ever did. The dominating reaction to the Bonds house arrest verdict was what a colossal waste of time and money the entire prosecution had been.

I, too, have lost my appetite for the steroid debate. My reasons for outrage — records and health — no longer apply. The biggest records have been toppled. Their health is really none of my business.

A quick aside: I have “Gasland” on Netflix, waiting to be watched. It is a documentary about all of these alleged health problems connected with gas drilling and fracking. I do not profess to know the validity of the arguments, just the arguments themselves. Despite all the dire health warnings, people sold their land rights for a couple of thousand dollars. So who are we to sit in judgment if an athlete wants to pump steroids or doped blood or horse urine into their system for millions?

The death of amazement, to me, is more about how achievements and narratives and even athletes themselves no longer amaze or inspire us. We are all looking for strings at the puppet show, the positive test, the proof it was never real after all.

The benefit of the doubt is dead, as Ryan Braun learned, crushed under the weight of Marion Jones denials and Armstrong’s plausible deniability and Paterno’s semantics. Because schools cheat. The coach with the impeccable record sometimes does the wrong thing. Athletes screw up. The thing that looks too good to be true sometimes is.

I am not so sure any of us will hear a story about a coach working with kids the same way after what has been alleged about ex-Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

Coughlin is right. What the cheaters took away from us was our ability to enjoy the moment.

One of the best stories in swimming right now is that of Brendan Hansen. He had been expected to crush in Beijing in 2008. What actually happened was he bombed out at the trials in Omaha. The race he did qualify for in Beijing was a gigantic disappointment. He quietly returned home and decided he was done with swimming.

Until he wanted to swim again, competitively.

His comeback at age 30 has been, for lack of a better word, amazing. His times mark him again as a favorite to medal in London. It is a story made even better because he is one of the nicest guys in the sport.

“I know what you are asking,” Hansen said. “And, yes, I am sure somebody is going to say ‘Why is he in the best shape of his life at 30?’”

What would you say to that person?

“You can just ask anybody who signed up for a triathlon in Austin the last two years,” he said. “People saw me every day riding his bike and running on the trail. Swimming is brutally honest. What you put into it is definitely what you are going to get out of it.”

What he is trying to do in London is no less amazing because our ability to be amazed has died. It is just a little sad that the cheaters have ruined it for everybody else.

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