Some things are almost guaranteed to send me into a state of apoplexy: religion is the big one; politicans are a fair bet, as are celebrities, corporate thinking and homophobia. Then there’s cheating at games.
I react viscerally to cheating, especially in sport; you know, the football player who feigns injury to get an opponent into trouble; the tennis player who swears a ball was out when they know it was in. It aggravates.
Of course, emotions are heightened during a contest and these are extraordinarily competitive individuals. Arguably, spontaneous cheating committed by agitated performers who are being outplayed is forgiveable, though it reflects very poorly on the cheater.
There are other kinds of cheating which are more calculated and reveal a ruthless, almost sociopathic character with little respect for their sport and little regard for their opponents or the paying fans. I’m thinking of Michael Schumacher shunting other drivers off the track to preserve his championship lead, or the boxer Antonio Margarito concealing plaster of paris in his hand wraps so his punches would be more damaging.
Then there’s cheating that is so embedded in the culture of a sport that it becomes more or less normal for the participants. Most doping falls into this category. The use of performance enhancing drugs in sport produces a variety of responses in me: there’s apoplexy, of course, which quickly gives way to disappointment, then resignation and its jaded offspring, cynicism.
I say resignation and cynicism because doping is so widespread in modern sport that it’s very hard to trust the results any more. And I’m not just talking about the “classic” doping sports, like cycling and athletics. It’s in rugby, football, tennis, motorsport, walking, even archery, where beta-blockers give you a tremendously steady hand. Any performance that relies on a degree of physical prowess can be chemically enhanced – and there will always be someone in any sport who is willing to do it.
That’s because it’s easy to avoid being caught. Drug testing is so inconsistent across different sports, and so poor, that you have to be either careless, stupid or very unlucky to be caught. The odds are so stacked in the athlete’s favour that the risk of doping is well worth taking. And for every athlete caught by a testing procedure, you can be fairly sure there are half a dozen who are not. Or even more.
Athletes get away with it because most doping is systematic, sophisticated and supported by an army of unscrupulous chemists, pharmacists, doctors, coaches, team managers, government officials and – worst of all – sports administrators who turn a blind eye (or accept bribes). It is well-funded and, in many sports, tolerated by governing bodies who don’t want to have to deal with the loss of cash and crediblity if it is uncovered.
Perhaps it’s always been this way; I don’t know. The problem with corruption is that it’s an unseen form of cheating. In this sense, doping is kind of like a magician’s sleight of hand, except that we know a magician is using trickery and we always get our smashed watch back in perfect condition.
Or perhaps it’s more like a lottery scam where someone exploits our desire for the thrill of winning to fleece us of our cash; except that, in sport, we’re also exploited for our loyalty, our goodwill and the dreams of glory we indulge through the uplifting drama of sport. Doping cynically exploits our need to believe that life can be better than it is.
This is a reason to object to doping, though it’s far from the only one (there’s public health, for example, and organised crime). What I really object to, even more deeply than this exploitation of my goodwill, is the offence to my natural sense of justice.
There are honest athletes, of course, and amazing ones, too. For my money, the greatest individual sporting achievement of modern times is Jonathan Edwards’ astonishing 18.29m triple jump on an unforgettable night in Gothenburg in 1995. I think it’s the greatest because I’m certain that Edwards was a clean athlete. I don’t feel completely confident saying that about Usain Bolt.
For the most part, we just don’t know who’s clean and who isn’t. Sometimes cheating is obvious (Florence Griffiths Joyner, anyone?), but mostly it’s invisible. This has a major consequence. It prevents us from answering the stark and simple question that sport was designed to answer: who is the best?
When doping is this rampant, the best cyclist in the world could be the guy who finishes 25th in every grand tour. But we will never know. What’s worse, neither will he, and he’ll go on being cheated of his glory and his rewards by lesser athletes until he gets fed up and opens a bike shop so he can earn a more honest living.
We are being deprived of an emotionally and intellectually satisfying truth by people who don’t have the strength of character to say ‘No’. It’s not necessarily their fault – the peer pressure in a sport like cycling is enormous. But if one rider can choose not to dope, they all can.
So, doping to me is an offence against a deep and natural sense of justice. It means truth and fairness are held hostage by people with an underdeveloped sense of personal responsibility. When I see an amazing performance now, I just smile ironically; how can I possibly believe it true? The answer is simple: I can’t.
UPDATE: Former pro cyclist Joe Papp has recently written about the psychological toll of doping on his own blog, Papillon. It’s worth reading for a perspective on why some athletes dope, even though they feel morally compromised. Joe generally has a lot of very insightful stuff to say about doping in cycling.