Playing the game

August 6th 2015

Some fifteen years ago, around the time the World Anti-Doping Agency was being formed, I attended an international drugs-in-sport conference in London. There was an almost messianic fervour in the room that drugs could be eliminated from sport. You could imagine the same atmosphere pervading the Opium Conferences of the early twentieth century – a solemn conviction that robust international controls would deal a death blow to the scourge of drug use.

It may well be that to use drugs or change your blood to gain advantage is equivalent to a boxer putting a brick in a boxing glove, but there are some paradoxes here – and not a little cant. If the name of the game is to allow an athlete to succeed on their own natural ability, then how come you can only really succeed at the very top as a result of long-term, intense, highly specialised training, scientifically devised and monitored dietary regimes and leading edge technological equipment? What’s ‘natural’ about that – and surely all this is by any definition ‘performance enhancing’? And who is most likely to benefit from all this elite and expensive assistance? The promising sprinter from Chad or Bolivia or Laos? No chance, unless by some miracle they are spotted and get a ‘scholarship’ to an American university and so access to the best of everything.

George Orwell once said that sport was surrogate war and certainly during the height of the Cold War, athletes from the USA and Communist countries would slug it out to gain points for the politicians. There was little or no money to be made and the Russian and Eastern European athletes in particular were instructed to succeed at all costs in pursuit of which male and female field athletes for example, were fed copious amounts of anabolic steroids which must have caused all sorts of long term damage. Drug control was partially instigated to stop this level of exploitation and abuse which it has – but the fact that athletes can lose their livelihood through ingesting a bewildering array of medicines including minor cold cures – and be subjected to a whole panoply of random testing regimes – including apparently the idea of night time testing – suggests another agenda at play well beyond simply the health and safety of athletes.

To my mind the sub-text in that conference hall was ‘we have failed to prevent drug use in society, but we sure as hell are going stop drug use in sport. Sport can be the standard bearer of a drug free world.’ Apart from cold cures, I offer as proof the fact that cannabis remains in the list of banned substances. Is cannabis really anybody’s idea of a performance-enhancing drug? Picture the scene; “On your marks, get set, GO! “’Hey, chill man, like you’re really ruining the vibe here”.

Beyond being political fodder for national pride, winning was and still is a key personal motivator; some years ago a group of athletes were asked if they could win an Olympic gold at the expense of a normal life span, would they take it – and many said they would. But now money is also a major factor; the difference between first and second, between fractions of a second, can be life changing in terms of sponsorship, appearance money, advertising and the rest. As it seems in life, so in sport, – to he or she who has it all – comes more. And who is offering all this money? It’s the international sports organisations who while being  intensely cash-aware are at the same time desperate to maintain the semblance of a ‘clean’ sport as if we were back in the days of ‘Chariots of Fire’ when in the tradition of Great British failure, “it wasn’t the winning, it was the taking part’.  Drug scandals are definitely bad for business. Nobody wants their brand associated with the banned.

Maybe the comedian Andy Parsons had an idea; off the back of yet another athletics drug revelation he said on Mock The Week that maybe there should be a Drugs Olympics and a Non-Drug Olympics, “because if anybody can run the 100 metres in 6.5 seconds, I’d pay to see that”.