by Bruce McDougall

For all our similarities, top-level athletes might as well live on another planet. Most of us would rather wash dishes than throw a 16-pound shot put across a field or ride a 15-pound bicycle down a mountain at a speed faster than the descent of Lance Armstrong’s reputation.

In one respect, the sporting world is no different than ours: It runs on money. The professional sports industry earns more for the plutocrats who own the teams than the agricultural industry earns for the farmers who feed the world. But unlike you and I, professional athletes make millions of dollars for doing something that the rest of us either avoid altogether or pay to do in our spare time. In return for their money, the owners and governments who sponsor top-level athletes expect a return on their investment. They don’t pay them to debate the finer points of Aristotelian logic or the concept of fair play. They expect their athletes to win.

Given our expectations and the billions of dollars involved in sports, why do we care if a quarterback deflates the football to make it easier to throw a pass or a guy on a bicycle takes a shot of testosterone on his way to winning the Tour de France? On whose behalf do we inveigle top-level athletes to play fair?

Our children? Children by the age of seven can distinguish an accomplished competitive athlete from the uncoordinated geeks and distracted hosers who stumble through their midst in pursuit of a soccer ball or an extra-base hit. They know without a doubt that professional athletes have emerged from a different gene pool and that life is unfair when it comes to the distribution of talent.

Are we protecting the athletes themselves? Any athlete who spends eight hours a day, seven days a week, 300 days a year preparing to launch himself over a crossbar on a pole, run the distance from my house to the liquor store in under two minutes, throw a football to his teammate or ride a sled down an ice-slicked mountain leads a fairly unbalanced life to begin with. How much further over the edge will he go with a couple of shots of testosterone or a vial of human blood in his system?

We like to watch juiced-up professional athletes compete in public until one participant clearly wins and the other doesn’t, knowing full well that they’ll do anything to win.

How about the fans? Most of us spend our lives competing in the corridors of domesticity and commerce for nothing more rewarding than a paycheck and the keys to the family car on a Friday night. The taste of our victories comes with a pinch of ambiguity and two measures of self-doubt. Since nothing so dramatic and unequivocal ever happens in our own lives, we like to watch juiced-up professional athletes compete in public until one participant clearly wins and the other doesn’t, knowing full well that they’ll do anything to win.

In return for sacrificing themselves at the altar of sporting achievement, athletes receive the dubious distinction of competing for their country or their commercial sponsor. On rare occasions, they win. They take home the big prize and get their picture on the Wheaties box. But most of them lose, over and over again, by a millimeter, a second or a single goal in overtime.

To go that extra millimeter in a split second or to skate a little faster down the ice, athletes tinker with the way they eat, sleep, breathe, move and think. They shave their heads, measure their riboflavin, drill holes in the soles of their shoes, deflate footballs and sleep under pyramids, with the sole objective of winning. Nothing short of victory can justify their obsessive self-indulgence. If they lose by a millimeter or a mile, they alienate their sponsors, forfeit the interest of their fans and return to lives of pot-bellied anonymity.

If they go too far, they suffer the shame and disgrace that go with the label of cheater, while the owners, the sponsors, the governments and the fans who sent them into competition and urged them to go farther, faster and higher stand back and shake their heads in dismay at yet another “stunning indictment of the state of the sport,” as commentators like to say.

In sports, as in the broader moth-eaten arena of day-to-day life, the people who profit most from an individual’s accomplishments and who abuse them for their own gain walk away scot-free while the athletes fall on their swords. In 2006, the cyclist Floyd Landis won the Tour de France but then tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. When he heard the news, Andy Rhiis, owner of the Swiss hearing-aid company Phonak, which sponsored Landis’s team, said, “Where there’s money, there’s cheating.” But Riis got a return for his money. So did all the rest of us, who cheered for Landis as he rode to victory. All of us got what we wanted, except for Floyd.

What’s fair about that?

Bruce McDougall has written or co-written sixteen books. His short work has appeared in The Antigonish Review, Geist, subTerrain, and Scrivener. A collection of his short stories called Every Minute is a Suicide was published in 2014 by The Porcupine’s Quill. His non-fiction novel, The Last Hockey Game, about the culture of professional hockey, was published in 2014, as well, by Goose Lane Editions. He is a graduate of Harvard College, where he was an editor of The Harvard Lampoon.