Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review: Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

Watched a great documentary today titled Bigger, Stronger, Faster*. Not exactly about running, but a great movie about sports. The movie is made by Christopher Bell who is a middle class guy from the Midwest who grew up with his older and younger brother idolizing the stars of the 80's: Rambo, Ah-nuld, Hogan, and all the WWF (now the WWE) wrestlers. The three brothers grew up wrestling in the basement and all went on to some degree of success in high school athletics.

As the brothers moved on into collegiate sports, they found that despite their work ethic and and natural ability, they were having a tough time keeping up and turned to anabolic steroids to succeed. Bell takes the film on an incredible journey to examine history of steroids, their use in pro athletics, the unbelievable disappointment of learning that his childhood heroes were all on the juice at some point, and much more. He interviews an astonishing array of activists, athletes, experts, government officials, and his friends and family. The interviews and discussions occur everywhere from the halls of Congress to his family's dinnertable. (ed note: this is the running connection when he interviews both Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis of the 1988 Seoul Olympics 100m sprint scandal)

What I particularly like about this film is that while some documentary filmmakers who come at controversial subjects with a clear position and desire to change people's minds, this film approaches an INCREDIBLY controversial subject and does an excellent job of just pointing out potential and actual conflicts of interest and paradoxes about how we think about "drugs" in America.

-Why is it okay to take performance enhancing drugs if you are a fighter pilot (speed) or a musician (beta blockers)?
-Why is there no severe criminal crackdown on using legal drugs in inappropriate ways (adderal for students without learning disorders)?
-Who gets to decide when something is a disorder or not (growth hormone deficiency and ADHD)?
-Why can anyone make supplements and sell them without regulation? (There is a great scene where he hires illegal immigrants to come to his house and assemble pills of his "proprietary blend" costing about $1-2 per bottle of product worth over $60.)
-Why is it so easy to get steroids legally if you claim the right problem? (He gets a chiropractor to prescribe steroids and HGH for him)
-If tobacco and alcohol kill hundreds of thousands of Americans annually and steroids kill 3, (FDA Data, source not found on Google) why are steroids demonized for being deadly drugs?
-Why is it legal to dope your blood by training at altitude or sleeping in an altitude chamber, but using Epo is illegal? (Floyd Landis and the 06 Tour de France)

The overarching struggle in the film is the desire that Americans have to always be #1, at all costs, and without cheating (even when it should be pretty obvious to us all). But when athletes are caught using certain performance enhancing drugs, they are shunned, shamed, and stripped of titles. There is this willing ignorance that Americans collectively engage in for the sake of winning and being entertained by feats of athleticism. For example, the clip from the Simpsons that he uses of Mark McGwire. Lisa asks him if he uses steroids and his response is "Do you want the truth, or do you wanna watch me hit a few more dingers?" To which, the entire city of Springfield chants "Dingers, Dingers!"

What he is particularly effective at in the film is confronting people in sports, the supplement industry, activists, his brothers, and his friends asking them hard questions without coming across as confrontational. His approach is hard hitting, but conversational. While a couple of people are brought to tears by the questions, mostly when he presents difficult rhetorical questions, people defend their use of drugs and enhancements as acceptable, but any other kind is bad. The self-justification bias is incredible.

The films credits roll over Disturbed's cover of "Land of Confusion" which I thought was an excellent statement of where the issue is, overlayed with the heavy beats of a rock/metal band.

Other notes:
There is a great interview with Chris Bell at MesoRx. If you have never seen "Pumping Iron" with Ah-nuld, it is a classic, but very interesting to ponder not only looking back through time, but after thinking about the issues that Bell covers in BSF.

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