Should we bother about doping in sport?

Date: January 4, 2013 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

The biggest sports story of last year was the shaming of Lance Armstrong as an out and out cheat – a man who had largely defrauded the millions of fans, race organizers and corporate sponsors who had fallen under his spell.

Travis Tygart, the head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency which eventually exposed the seven-time Tour de France winner’s unethical acts, labelled the episode as “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping” program in history.

I take it Tygart was excluding the nefarious, State-sanctioned doping programs that occurred behind the Iron Curtain, particularly in East Germany, during the Cold War days.

Nonetheless, the fall of the House of Armstrong was yet another slap in the face for the sports fan.

Over time, we have had our hopes dashed and memories sullied as our sporting heroes are affirmed as possessing feet of clay.

The list of high profile, gilt-edged athletes later found to be cheats would fill several volumes – Ben Johnson, Linford Christie, Marion Jones. Floyd Landis, Tim Montgomery, Michelle Smith et al.

Time and again we are expected to maintain the faith as sports, like cycling, keep trotting out the same old line, “that that was then, and this is now”.

That is one of the problems with catching drug cheats, it often happens many years after the crime was committed – in Jones’ case, eight years later – hence the standard response by sports administrators is to simply say that things have changed markedly since then.

Yet, as sure as night follows day, it is only a matter of time before yet another athlete garners headlines for all the wrong reasons.

So, in the eyes of many fans, the question is, ‘should we really care about doping, shouldn’t we just let them all do what they wish?

The answer is a resounding NO.

Let’s look at the reasons why.

Is what we are witnessing when we enter an arena or switch on the TV, sport or entertainment?

If it is entertainment, than it is open slather – just ask the owners and promoters of WWE, which incidentally stands for World Wrestling Entertainment.

When you part with your hard-earned to go and watch WWE you do so with the full knowledge that you are about to enter a Lewis Carroll type environment where anything goes.

The same should not be the case when you pay to watch ‘real’ sport.

Sport by its very nature should be played with a mind to fairness.

And yes, I know that has oft not been the case but we crack down hard on those who flagrantly break the laws or tenets of the game.

Violence is not accepted, nor for example, is wiping a bloody hand on the shirt of an opponent.

The sporting world looked on with utter disdain when a trio of Pakistani cricketers conspired to take money in turn for altering the scoreboard, as they did when it was proven that betting scandals had been unearthed in Italian soccer.

It was deemed that there was no place in sport for such actions which demeaned the very ethos of what sport is based on.

On that basis alone, we should not merely open up sport to open slather drug use, as many propose.

Some argue that there are plenty of performance-enhancing drugs being legally used every day.

They cite the use of painkilling injections as a case in point.

The thing to remember is that a painkiller does not enhance an athlete’s performance above what he is normally capable of while substances like anabolic steroids and EPO do.

Also, if you were to ban painkillers where would you actually draw the line?

Is placing a Band-Aid on a blister performance enhancing or allowing an athlete to take an approved headache tablet prior to competition?

There will always be sportsmen and women who will shun performance enhancing drugs, regardless of whether they are banned or openly condoned and their reasons are often very well founded.

The use of performance-enhancing drugs can be extremely deleterious to one’s health.

The 18 or so lower grade Belgian and Dutch cyclists who died in their sleep of heart attacks around the time that EPO entered the ranks of cycling are testament to that.

So too, are myriad East German women who suffered rare cancers and gave birth to severely deformed children after years of being plied with pills whilst competing for the good of the nation during the 1970s and ‘80s.

A court case a few years ago saw many millions of Euros paid out in compensation after it was determined that their health and that of their children was compromised as a result of drug usage.

If doping was allowed in sport, how would we structure global competition – would we stage two separate Olympics?

The other major reason that drugs must be banned is the flow down affect legalizing them could have.

Teams like Armstrong’s were overseen by doctors and chemists – albeit totally unscrupulous ones – whilst the average amateur team or athlete around the world has no such safety net.

If drugs were made open slather the effect on young athletes, in particular, could be catastrophic.

If an athlete is taking a certain dosage of drug yet is still being beaten by a particular opponent and hears that that opponent is taking a higher dosage than him, what does he do?

Well, if it is legal to do so, he will most likely up his dosage because, in his mind, it has helped the other bloke to win.

And then if he goes onto win and word gets out as to what he is taking, others will up their dosage.

And that is a recipe for disaster – if not death – as everyone’s metabolism is different and will react to various drugs in various ways.

And with no medical support or safety checks we would be risking all sorts of unsavoury consequences.

Regardless of what anyone says, drugs have to be policed out of sport as best we can.

There will always be athletes who are provided with currently undetectable substances and we can do little about that, however the freezing of samples as is often the case nowadays, will catch out some athletes later down the track.

Let us never lose sight of the basis ethos of sport and the ideals it is supposed to portray.

Let us not be swayed by those who gamble with its ethics.

And if they are found out, let us name and shame them, for they are robbing us of much of the pleasure that should so simply be derived by watching a sporting contest.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 3 January 2013