Monday, June 27, 2005

Success and Perception

Two more interesting stories from Malcolm Gladwell:

Fred Soper, DDT and the Killing of Mosquitos [New Yorker]

"Today, of course, DDT is a symbol of all that is dangerous about man's attempts to interfere with nature.... With DDT as his weapon, Soper almost saved the world from one of its most lethal afflictions. Had he succeeded, we would not today be writing DDT's obituary. We would view it in the same heroic light as penicillin and the polio vaccine."

On the Difficulty of Drug Testing and Super-Athletes [New Yorker]

"Perhaps the best example of how murky the drug issue has become is the case of Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who won the one hundred metres at the Seoul Olympics, in 1988. Johnson set a new world record, then failed a post-race drug test and was promptly stripped of his gold medal and suspended from international competition...

"Francis [Johnson's coach] describes his bewilderment at being informed that his star runner had failed a drug test--for the anabolic steroid stanozolol. "I was floored," Francis writes: "To my knowledge, Ben had never injected stanozolol... After seven years of using steroids, Ben knew what he was doing. It was inconceivable to me that he might take stanozolol on his own and jeopardize the most important race of his life."

So Johnson was caught using steroids, not because he was taking the drug he tested positive for, but because of "lax" security in international competitions and "botched" testing.

Gladwell then questions the success of Flo Jo:
"At the age of twenty-eight--when most athletes are beginning their decline--Griffith Joyner transformed herself in one season from a career-long better-than-average sprinter to the fastest female sprinter in history. Of course, FloJo never failed a drug test. But what does that prove? FloJo went on to make a fortune as a corporate spokeswoman. Johnson's suspension cost him an estimated twenty-five million dollars in lost endorsements. The real lesson of the Seoul Olympics may simply have been that Johnson was a very unlucky man."

How much success is luck? And what will people do to ensure their success, especially if they won't be competitive if they don't do what their competitors are doing?