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Monday, August 09, 2004


Higher, Faster, Stronger - at what sacrifice?

With the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics only four days away, today’s Guardian features an essay by Lincoln Allison which asks, ‘is it really so wrong for an athlete to use performance-enhancing drugs?’ Read his article, as it is a lot better than what I have written below.

Given the recent BALCO scandal in athletics that threatens to ruin the US track and field team’s chances of glory in Athens, the use of drugs in sport is a topic on which I have recently been thinking. Of course, on hearing that medal winners and record holders had tested positive for banned substances, my instinct was that the punishment and shame drug cheats faced was entirely deserved. If you take a substance on the banned list you face expulsion from the sporting arena. But why do we have this rule? Why are performance-enhancing drugs banned in sport?

The strongest argument seems to be that it is a question of ‘fairness’; that those athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs gain an unfair advantage over their rivals. But that simply pushes the question a stage further back, so we ask; in what way does this advantage differ from other advantages that an athlete may possess? After all, if no athlete possessed any advantages over another sport would lose its meaning; every race would end in a dead-heat. Are there any advantages that athletes deploy that are similar in nature to drug taking? I feel that there are, and they are training and nutrition.

The training facilities and nutritional resources available to athletes differ enormously. An athlete with good financial support, whether this is through government-funded schemes, corporate sponsorship or family backing, will have access to all of these resources, but the same cannot be said from athletes from countries whose governments have a poor record of investment in sport, who eschew, or are not marketable enough for advertising roles, or who belong to families without the money to support their promising athletic members. Briefly, it is evident that performance and success in sport relies not only on some ‘inborn ability’ or ‘desire for glory’ or even ‘the eye of the tiger’, but on a whole array of resources, wider than those mentioned above, that vary between athletes in manners that are quite beyond their control.

But, say some supporters of the current status quo in professional athletics, compared to well-resourced training regimes or carefully optimised diets, drugs are categorically different. They harm the user, and we cannot have a sport in which success demands on the athletes’ willingness to sacrifice later heath and life in order to gain glory now. But stories of modern sport tells us that success is achieved through self-denial, through training regimes described with the adjective ‘punishing’ and through playing the gamble of dedication. In what way is it more moral for us to expect a child to become athletes – for that is the price of success – than for us to expect an adult athlete to boost his or her performance pharmaceutically?

Perhaps I am not giving great enough gravity to the harm that is caused by drugs. They kill. But so can nutrition, training and competition. To take two extreme examples, sumo wrestlers, by the nature of the nutritional regime required for participation, face drastically shortened life expectancies. Boxers, due to the goal of the sport itself, face a future plagued by brain damage. Less drastically, many athletes face a retirement dogged by arthritis and other muscular and skeletal problems. We could adopt a system by which training was limited and short-term nutritional programmes restricted, to ensure that the participants in the Olympics could minimise their risk of, for example, long-term joint damage. A training and nutrition covenant perhaps, a reminder of the amateur ethos without the class-prejudice this carries.

But there is another problem, and that is the consumer of professional sport – the audience. Would we want to see athletes breaking world records thanks to drugs? Allison argues that the evidence from America suggests that we wouldn’t care. A second article from the Guardian suggests that performance at this year’s Olympics will be poorer than in previous years, and that this decline in standards will be due to effective anti-doping measures. But sport is an entertainment business; so we are told when those who hold the purse-strings depart from the ‘ethos of sport’, often by opposing any levelling of he playing field, any attempt to combat ‘unfairness’.

I am not calling for performance-enhancing drugs to be allowed into the bodies that will run on the track in Athens next week. But I do suggest the arguments that oppose drugs in sport should also oppose damaging over-training, unhealthy nutrition, over-competition, and even the development of socially unhealthy psychologies deemed necessary for sporting success. If it is about fairness, then that is what we should stand up for. If sport is to be a business, with all the unfairness that implies, then the argument for keeping drugs out of sport in bankrupt.

World Anti-Doping Agency

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Sport's Not For Losers!
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I have been directed to an article in The Economist that pretty much sums up my arguments, loath as I am to say so. The differences between this article and the post I made lie in that I tried to emphasise 'fairness', i.e. the removal of advantages and disadvantages patently outside of the 'ethos of sport', of which performance-enhancing drugs are one, and multi-million pound corporate support for marketable (a quality that can spring as much from biography, demography or just plain old charismatic photogenicity, as it can from performance and potential) athletes is another.

Neither does it suggest, as I did, that treating sport as a business robs arguments against doping of much of their legitimacy. For me, the value of sports lies in participation. I am heartened that UK newspapers - and you will rarely find me say anything in support of our newspapers - still find time, space and reason to celebrate courageous failure. Assertions such as 'second place is just the first loser' (please insert a string of consonants into the word loser to emphasise your dismissal of such a person's worth) seem to me to have a far more damaging, and direct, effect on our collective view of what society is, than the relatively indirect leap from footballers indulging in blood-boosting or rugby players taking growth hormones to non athletes taking recreational drugs.

But, again, please do not take it that I am suggesting that performance-enhancing drugs should be allowed. Rather, I would like to see a stress on 'fairness' in sport, a move that would allow the Olympics to live up to its potential as a celebration of mankind. At the moment it is a celebration of many things, most of which can be quantified not in seconds, scores or metres, but in dollars.

Drawing up rules that limit the ‘professionalism’ of athletes and the intrusion of business into sport might seem draconian. But put it alongside a global drug testing organisation, in which urine and even blood samples can be demanded of athletes on unannounced home visits, and such a system of ensuring 'fair' sports seems to be a light-touch regulatory regime.

Thanks for the tip, Wayne.

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