Thursday, 19 July 2012

The case for drugs in sport

The Olympics are just over a week away and among the concerns about the omni-shambles that is G4S, the rows over the opening ceremony and problems with the athlete’s village water supply the issue of drugs is on the agenda again, more-often-than not in articles and documentaries about the 1988 100m final the most recent being on BBC4 a couple of nights ago.  It would be easy to think drug use is a thing of the past but as recently as February, David Howman, the director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) said that fewer than one in five athletes taking drugs is being caught and just last month he said the agency’s effectiveness was being undermined by budget cuts.

That doesn’t sound too good does it?  So, here’s a suggestion: Let’s just be done with all the fuss and make doping in sport legal.  Once all the faux outrage has disapated, the counter argument to that tends to sound something like: artificially enhancing performance through drug use is wrong because it’s not fair, it’s dangerous and it’s against the rules.  In fact that pretty much is Wada’s code which states that for a substance to be prohibited it must meet two of the following three criteria: (1) it enhances or has the potential to enhance performance; (2) it is an “actual or potential health risk” to the athlete taking it; and (3) it’s contrary to the “spirit of sport”.

But let’s think about this rationally for a moment (a) there are many unnatural things which enhance performance (b) sport is full of health risks; and (c) it’s also full of inequality.  To that I’ll add: (d) the rules are so inconsistent as to be laughable.


Doping’s a horrible, modern phenomenon, we’re told, you’d never get this in the ancient Olympics.  Well, no.  Ancient Olympians competed for huge cash prizes (the equivalent of half a million in today’s terms) and so everything from magic mushrooms to crushed-up ox hooves was used in attempts to enhance performance.

“But drug use isn’t fair!” you say.  Well, life isn’t fair and neither is sport – and it never will be.  Why do you think Olympic medals tables read like the Sunday Times rich list of countries, with the wealthiest at the top and the poorest at the bottom?  And have you watched the Premier League or La Liga recently?  Here’s another thing: all the athletes in that infamous 1988 100m final were black, yet not one of them represented and African nation.  How’s that for inequality?

Which brings us to the issue of whether we should or shouldn’t artificially enhance athletes’ performances.  Well, what is a running shoe with a more advanced design?  Or access to the best coaches, dieticians and facilities?  None of those things are ‘natural’ yet they all have a habit of ‘enhancing performance’.

You want sport to be as fair as possible?  Put all the competitors in the same environment with the same food, coaches, equipment and facilities for the six months before a competition and make them compete naked – as the ancient Greeks did specifically to show everyone was ‘equal’.  Or how about we dispense with record-keeping and medals tables and revert back to the amateur ethos thus removing many of the pressures and incentives to enhance performance.  It’s not going to happen, is it?

And let’s not overestimate the impact doping has.  Yes, it has some (otherwise, why would it be used) but it’s just one part of an intense training regime, it’s not as if Ben Johnson, spent six months sat on his arse watching telly and eating pies only to shoot up before he pulled on his spikes at Seoul.

Ahh, Seoul, I hear you calling – the biggest drug scandal of the modern Olympics when Johnson won the 100m final only to be stripped of gold three days later when he was found to have tested positive for stanozolol.  He claimed he only doped to stay on a level footing with his competitions but his plea in mitigation was dismissed.  But then he wasn’t American.

However, it was later revealed that in the run up to those Games Carl Lewis who was awarded gold following Johnson’s disqualification, had tested positive three times for pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine, results overlooked, in fact buried, by the United States Olympic Association along with over 100 other positive tests by Olympic athletes between 1988 and 2000.

Lewis’ defense is both weak and an insightful admission that drug taking was rife: “It’s ridiculous.  Who cares?  There were hundreds of people getting off.  Everyone was treated the same.” His claim he had taken the drugs accidentally was dismissed by Dick Pound the head of Wada in 2003 as ‘a joke’.  Thankfully, the International Olympic Committee took the issue seriously by making Lewis their Sportsman of the 20th Century. 
Britain’s Linford Christie ended up with silver in that 1988 final despite also testing positive for pseudoephedrine at the Games.  He escaped punishment from the Olympic disciplinary committee by a vote margin of 11-10 in his favour.  One vote the other way and there would have been no silver, and probably no gold four years later.  As it turns out, in 1999 Christie  was found guilty of using Nadralone receiving a two-year ban from the IAAF and a life-time ban from the British Olympic Association.

America’s Denis Mitchel who came fourth (following Johnson’s disqualification) was banned for two years in 1998 for having a high level of testosterone and ten years later he admitted having been injected with human growth hormone. Desai Williams, who came sixth, admitted steroid use in the wake of the Johnson scandal and Ray Stewart who came last was banned from athletics for life in 2010 for supplying steroids to athletes he was coaching.

Furthermore, documents handed over to Sports Illustrated in 2003 by former US doping agency chief Dr Wade Exum show that Joe DeLoach and Andre Philips who won golds in the 200m and 400m hurdles respectively at the 1988 Games, like Lewis, had had their positive tests in the run up to the games over-looked by the US Olympic Committee (DeLoach, Lewis’s training partner oddly testing for exactly the same three drugs as Lewis).  They were just the tip of a particularly large iceberg with more than 100 competitors including 19 Olympic medallists had positive tests covered up between 1988 and 2000.  And there was me thinking it was just those bastard communists. 

It’s no surprise though.  In the late Seventies a survey asked top-level athletes if they would be willing to take a drug which guaranteed a gold medal but which would kill them within a year. More than 50% said yes.  In 1997, Sports Illustrated asked 198 athletes a similar question (would you take a drug guaranteeing both a gold medal and death within five years?). 195 said yes.  Whatever you might think, the athletes’ feelings are pretty clear: they’ll put their lives on the line for gold.  And their actions speak as loud as their words.  Since 1987 three of eight 100m World record holders have had their records expunged for drug use – Ben Johnson, Tim Montgomery and Justin Gatlin and since 1984 four of seven Olympic 100m gold medal winners (including Ben Johnson) have been found to have tested positive for drug use and a fifth, Maurice Greene admitted buying steroids but claimed he never used them himself.  Gatlin, whose 2007 lifetime ban was reduced to eight and then four years, will compete in London having posted the fastest ever time for an over-30-year-old.  Isn’t it time to just go with the flow?

But doping’s dangerous I hear you say. OK, I’m not going to pretend there aren’t risks attached but there are dangers inherent in many sports.  Last year, Brisbane rugby union player Halley Appleby died following a tackle which left him with brain and spinal cord injuries.  In 2008, Neath scrum half Gareth Jones had his neck broken in a tackle during a game against Cardiff.  He never regained consciousness and died two months later as a result of the injury.

They were all described as ‘freak’ incidents but that’s simply not true.  Tragic, yes. Freak, no. The full extent of serious spinal injuries in rugby is not known, as there has never been an in-depth study (you have to wonder why) but between 1976 and 1995 47 players were left permanently paralysed in New Zealand alone.

Athletes are adults able to make their own choices about the dangers they expose their bodies to.  If they want to play rugby, where a scrum may collapse on top of them, leaving them paralysed of fatally injured, so be it.  If they want to inject themselves with drugs, let them get on with it.

So, when we get down to it, it’s really just the rules that make doping ‘wrong’ and those rules themselves are inconsistent.  Take EPO (or erythropoietin) a hormone that increases red-blood cell count and thus the body’s capacity to carry oxygen. It was banned, so athletes started blood-doping - removing their own blood then re-injecting it prior to competition once their body had replicated it, giving themselves a similar oxygen-carrying boost.  This too was banned.  However, after some consideration Wada has determined that using an oxygen-deprevation chamber, which replicates the effects of EPO and blood-doping, is just as artificial and causes damage to the body (by creating a hypoxic incident when oxygen levels are reduced) is still legal.

Low-oxygen tent
And let’s rewind once again to Seoul in 1988.  Middle distance runner Peter Elliott was (still is) lauded for his efforts in the 800m (in which he came fourth) and 1,500m (in which he won a silver medal).  He’s regarded as a hero by many for running through the pain barrier.  Of course, it wasn’t just heroism that enabled him to do this, but also pain-killing injections of hydrocortisone in his groin before the heats and the finals of both events.  Or, to be blunt, a steroid, which helped him run better than he’d otherwise have been able to.

Following the Games Elliott spent two weeks in hospital as his left pubic symphysis muscle, which had caused him the trouble, had become infected and he even feared he’d never run again.  Indeed, his running career did end just three years later as a consequence and to this day, even a gentle run causes him trouble.  So, like many others, he traded some of his health for a shot at glory.

Of course, Elliott did nothing wrong the drugs he took were completely legal, but let’s not beat around the bush here; they enhanced his performance by killing the pain which would have otherwise stopped him from running and they but his health at risk – breaching two of Wada’s three prohibition criteria.  If that doesn’t lay bare the massive inconsistency, dare I say hypocrisy, regarding drugs in the world of sport nothing will.

Western society is drowning in drug use. We’re all either ‘healthy’ or ‘ill’ and if we fall into the latter category then, as Mick Jagger might say, there’s a little yellow pill for just about every condition. Got a headache? Take some paracetamol.  Your kid got a temperature? Give 'em some Calpol.  If athletes are allowed to take drugs, sorry I mean medicine, to better their performances when they’re ‘ill’ is it really any wonder that they’ll seek to do the same when they’re ‘healthy’?  And isn’t it about time we just let them get on with it?

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