We can’t stop doping in sport, so why not just give up?

Date: April 26, 2013 / Posted by control

In recent times we have been bombarded with news of doping scandals in sport – both confirmed and alleged.

From the contrite and seemingly stage managed confession by Lance Armstrong to the current allegations swirling around the AFL and NRL, the issue of drugs in sport has not been too far from the headlines of late.

Interestingly, Armstrong’s ultimate fall from grace came about not as a result of any specific positive tests but on the back of a long and exhaustive investigation undertaken by the United States Anti-Doping Authority.

Likewise, if there are definitive guilty verdicts handed down with regard to the ASADA investigations into practices within the AFL and NRL they will have been driven in large part by the year-long investigative operation conducted by the ACC.

Like Marion Jones and the Festina affair and Operación Puerto in cycling, it is not drug testing that is primarily unearthing athletes who are doping but law enforcement and customs investigations.

With so many athletes seemingly evading drug tests successfully, yet subsequently being found guilty of doping through investigative undertakings, many are saying it is perhaps time to admit that the battle against doping in sport cannot be won and the continued expenditure of millions of dollars trying to do so is simply a waste of time.

In short, there are plenty of people who believe that the doors should be thrown open, allowing athletes open slather to enhance their performance in any way they see fit.

Scrap the WADA Code and its long list of banned substances and methods with regard to doping and say that at all levels of sport anything goes.

Such a theory is ridiculous, and indeed is heavily flawed ‘logic’ that if taken up could have extremely dire consequences for athletes and their families. By walking away from the war on doping in sport because it appears to be all too difficult is simply not acceptable.

Imagine if, as a society, we adopted the same philosophy when it came to the illicit drugs that are so readily dealt and consumed in the Australian community.

If there were no laws attached to the supply and use of illicit street substances what sort of impact would that have on the general society?

Just as we would never contemplate such an approach when it comes to illicit societal drugs, we should seek to stay the course as well when it comes to doping in the sporting realm.

At present, and this has been the case since drug testing in sport became an issue in the late-1960s, a portion of the drugs of choice at any given time are able to be utilized without fear of detection.

Some performance enhancers are actually being given to athletes before they have been granted the certification by regulatory bodies with regard to being fit for human use – the anti-obesity drug AOD-9064 which has been allegedly used in Australia by sports scientists is one such substance to have recently fallen into that category.

The thought of elite athletes being used as mere guinea pigs is a somewhat ghoulish thought.

The use of drugs yet to be regulated for human use are very much in the minority however when it comes to those used in sport.

Almost without fail, the drugs that have been used unethically in sport have been invented as a result of medical and pharmaceutical research that is endeavouring to help patients overcome medical conditions.

The birth of synthetic EPO, synthesized testosterone and anabolic steroids all came about as a result of research done with respect to the treatment for numerous illnesses. While these drugs were designed to help cure or treat known illnesses they soon became the target of unscrupulous people involved in sport who saw that performance benefits could be achieved when these substances were supplied to athletes.

At the level of elite sport the use of the vast majority of these drugs is done so through a carefully orchestrated and managed regime which is overseen by either doctors or sports scientists – or, in many circumstances, both.

As a result, there is a certain safety net that protects the athlete when it comes to physical harm.

This approach has come a long way since the days of the old East Germany where there appeared to be very few checks and balances as the communist regime of the day saw winning at all costs vastly more important than the future health of its athletes.

Nowadays, for example, all professional cycling teams are backed up by significant medical and sports science staff.

History has starkly indicated that many of these backroom boys have been the drivers behind the sport being the most tainted in the world when it comes to doping.

But, again, the sports law-breaking doping protocols are undertaken within strict controls both designed to elude the testers and to also maintain the health of the cyclist.

But it is only the major teams with their vast financial backing that can afford medical support that is available 24-7 to the riders, whether they be providing their services for either legal or illegal practices in sporting terms.

Once you go below the top tiers of every major elite sport, as expected, the level of direct medical and sports science support rapidly dwindles.

And it is these various strata beneath the top-end elite level that would be impacted the greatest by lifting the bans and sanctions currently in place with respect to doping.

When EPO became the drug of choice among the pelotons of professional cycling in Europe in the early-1990s it was looked upon as a silver bullet – a drug capable of synthetically enriching the athlete’s red blood cell count and as a result creating a greater capacity for oxygen transference within the body.

The sports scientists and doctors – many of them unscrupulous in their practice – assisting top tier professional teams were soon clamouring over one another to get their hands on this new wonder drug.

History now indicates that in events like the Tour de France the majority of riders were using either EPO or other blood boosting practices to enhance their physiology for much of the era from the mid-1990s onwards.

In the early days of EPO’s nexus with cycling there was a spate of deaths – young men who were supremely fit yet nonetheless died in their sleep. Up to a dozen deaths occurred in a relatively short space of time.

Most of these fatalities were attributed to the use of EPO, which may provide substantial advantages in athletic performance for an endurance athlete whilst in training or competition but it can have a very deleterious effect when the body is at rest as it can lead to blood thickening, a common cause of heart failure.

Interestingly, almost all the recorded deaths were among cyclists at either amateur level or professionals in teams well down the sport’s food chain. Those particular riders did not have the benefit of readily available medical advice and as such most were self-medicating at levels that they self-prescribed.

By nature, all sportspeople are competitive – they have to be to succeed.

If bans on performance enhancing drugs were lifted across the board and they became a perfectly acceptable part of sport at all levels this inherent competitive streak would likely become a major issue.

If drugs were totally acceptable more athletes would dabble in them – likewise you would expect the same would occur if the laws were lifted with respect to illicit street drugs. The very notion that using the likes of cocaine or heroin is illegal is a major deterrent in itself.

If, for example, two amateur 100m runners are both of similar level and then one decides to enhance his performance by using what would have been a previously banned substance it goes to reason he should eclipse his rival.

If that rival gets wind of his opponent’s drug use he may be tempted to go down the same path – and why not for it is no longer a banned practice in sport? – however having learned that his rival is on 10mg of a certain drug he decides to use 15mg. And then, if he starts besting his rival, he may well decide that he needs to up his intake and he goes to 20mg in an endeavour to regain his previous advantage.

But who is there to advise him on just what levels are safe? Does he have to pay to go and see a sports physician or does he just think that surely a few more milligrams can’t hurt?

Pretty soon things could get very ugly. Simply throwing our hands in the air and saying to the drug cheats, “you win”, is not the solution.

Yes, many may be flaunting the system and slipping through the cracks. But allowing all sportspeople to go ‘chemical’ with no fear at all of being outed, banned and disgraced is not an acceptable path to follow.

Just like drugs in mainstream society the battle to eradicate it in sport is the right thing to do.

Oh, and by the by, sport is actually supposed to produce healthier bodies and minds – simply saying the war on doping is just too difficult is a quick way to potentially torpedo that ethos for good.

First published on ‘The Roar’ – www.theroar.com.au – on 25 April 2013

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