I must firstly confess that I have a very liberal, laissez-faire stance when it comes to drugs in all walks of life. In my eyes, you’d be a fool to suggest that there are no adverse effects associated with drug use but the danger largely arises from the fact the quality and quantity of drugs being consumed are totally unregulated. I’m not a drug user myself but the common sense approach would obviously be to legalise the majority of drugs (I think the real hard-hitters like heroin and crack should probably remain forbidden) and then for the government to regulate the hell out of the industry to make sure the contents, output and price of the drugs are firmly controlled. I’ve just reduced crime, perhaps lessened the burden on the NHS and generated millions in additional tax revenue. It’s still not too late to vote for me in 2015 election.
Of course this is all just a pipe dream (no pun intended) because as a society, we generally tend to have a Mr. Mackey from South Park “Drugs are bad mmm’kay?” attitude. You will legitimately get people discussing the pitfalls of drug usage while taking a drag on a cigarette and knocking back their second bottle of wine, and they will do this without even the slightest hint of irony. Even worse than recreational drugs is the farce that surrounds drugs in sport. In some sports we’ve reached a point where the competitors, drug testing authorities and spectators all look like morons because we all know what’s going on but it remains unmentioned like a ‘roid-enhanced elephant in the room.
I think it’s fair to say athletics and cycling are the two sports most pertinent to this argument, but I’ve always had my suspicions about tennis as well. Cycling is by far and away the most ridiculous, to the point that it would be more surprising if we found out a competitor genuinely wasn’t using drugs or blood doping. The fallout from the Lance Armstrong scandal and Operación Puerto has shown just how widespread and systematic doping is, and I suppose this is where my issue with the condemnation of “cheating” lies.
The core principle behind banning performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) is that it eliminates an unfair advantage and maintains a level playing field for athletes to compete upon. If there was a case where one athlete had access to these illicit resources and another one didn’t, then I would be totally in favour of banning drugs but when literally Every.Single.Person. is doing it, who is being unfairly disadvantaged? Pretty much every athlete across every sport that has been caught doping has said the same thing; they resisted the pressure at first but then they saw how many of their colleagues were doing the same and thought it would be foolish not to partake and therefore wilfully disadvantage themselves.
Peer pressure is a weak excuse but you must understand that these are professional athletes with an insatiable will to win or at least remain competitive. It’s a domino effect because they are largely not trying to cheat their way to victory, but merely keep up with the rest of the field. In game theory terms, staying clean is a sub-optimal (stupid) decision. Take Tyson Gay for example; he was doping, running 100m in 9.71 seconds and only coming second. I agree that sport should be fair but if we can be pragmatic for a second, what do you think is the easiest way to ensure egalitarianism? a) Bring down the structural, systematic drug hierarchy within the sport, leading a massive operation to root out all the cheats and banning them all b) Permitting drug use and allowing the remaining clean majority to get up to speed (again, no pun intended). In the so called “Dirtiest Race in History” (the 100m final of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games), 6 of the 8 finalists were implicated in some sort of doping scandal, including Ben Johnson (perhaps the most infamous drugs cheat of all time) and Carl Lewis, who escaped with his reputation relatively unscathed due to a US-orchestrated cover up. When such an overwhelming percentage of the field is using, it is time to admit you have lost the War On Drugs.
The silliness of the situation is only exacerbated by our insistence that drugs are unfair but our tacit acceptance of other ridiculously unfair scenarios in other sports. Man United can spend £200m improving their squad whilst Burnley make do with a hundredth of that, yet we will refer to the Premier League as an even playing field. Real Madrid and Barcelona’s oligopoly over Spanish TV rights makes it miraculous that Atletico were able to break-up the cartel, but overwhelming financial advantages are not viewed in the same light as chemical-based ones. You can argue that all their revenue is self-generated and therefore fair blah blah blah but even then you still have the likes of Chelsea, Man City and PSG who are often ironically referred to as engaging in “financial doping”
In sport, some competitors will have better resources than you and it may not necessarily be fair, but it is something you have to deal with. A sprinter is permitted to have better coaches, a better dietician and better facilities than his/her rival, but why do we then arbitrarily draw the line at better drugs? I will draw you to an example in the grey area of tennis that perfectly illustrates this folly. Novak Djokovic has been known to use a CVAC chamber in order to assist in his recovery from matches. The machine simulates high-altitude conditions and Djok attributes this, along with a gluten-free diet as the game changing factors in his rise to one of the game’s finest players. As far as I’m aware, these machines cost around $75,000 a pop and there were approximately 20 in the world at the last count. So Djokovic has access to a resource that the majority of his competitors cannot use, which performs a function that he could not hope to do naturally (I’m working on the assumption that he is unable to scale K2 in the day or so between his matches) and yet this is perfectly legal. I am extremely confident that were Djokovic to take an injection that yielded the same results, the relevant authorities would clamp down on him with a vengeance. There is no difference barring method of delivery, which leads me to my final point; the rigmarole surrounding testing.
From what I have read about doping, it seems that the only reason why an athlete should test positive for drugs is due to their own negligence as opposed to any great skill from the testing authorities. You will often see the old cliché of “dopers are always one step ahead of testers” trotted out, but it is entirely true. The relevant agencies will have their list of banned substances but when dopers move beyond using those, how can they be realistically expected to detect the new alternatives? The sheer asymmetry of information between both parties means that it’s virtually impossible for the testers to ever come out on top. Their methods and practices are all well-established and out in the open whereas we’re not even sure who the dopers are let alone what they’re up to. We live in an era where the drugs designed are so sophisticated that passing a drugs test does absolutely nothing to eradicate suspicion. It is worth noting that notorious steroid user Marion Jones never failed a drugs test because the BALCO designer drugs she was using were so ahead of testing standards at the time.
What would be eminently more sensible would be the permission of drugs on the basis of a full-disclosure policy to WADA and any other regulatory bodies. We’d therefore know who was doping and exactly what they were using which I think would be a massive relief to all parties concerned. Imagine being able to watch a race without always having to cast aspersions over your favourite sprinter’s achievements because you’d actually know whether they were using or not. Doping agencies would no longer look ridiculous and we could put an end to athletes cowering in fear over urinating into a cup. This point is a very personal one rather than factual, but I also feel that drug usage doesn’t always necessarily denigrate what is objectively an amazing feat. You could give the majority of sprinters in the field drugs and they still would not achieve the times that the likes of Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay or Justin Gatlin ran. Regardless of their misdemeanours, they are still remarkable athletes doing extraordinary things. Even nearly 20 years after her death and 30 years after her records were set, Flo-Jo is still dogged by accusations of drug use which I feel spectacularly glosses over her insane times. Let us entertain the supposition that she was on PEDs; is it still not astonishing that even 27 years later, with all the advantages in science, technology and coaching (and drugs), that no female sprinter can even get near to her records? Drugs or no drugs, she was (and still is) clearly the fastest female ever and by fixating on her possible drug use (although she never tested positive) is somewhat missing the point.
To finish, I will leave you with a quote from columnist Dan Bernstein, who reasoned that people who still believe top level sprinting is clean are stuck in a place “ that is as intellectually dishonest as it is wilfully ignorant, where convenient blind spots and emotional neediness cause otherwise intelligent people to create fairylands of childish naiveté.” I would say Mr. Bernstein’s wise words extend beyond merely believing the competitors are clean, but that they ever could/should/will be competing without drugs.[adToAppearHere]
If this piqued your interest, you should definitely do some research into the following: BALCO, Operacion Puerto, Mens 100m Final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Jesús Manzano, Eufemiano Fuentes and Angel Heredia.