The one about doping

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.

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3 thoughts on “The one about doping

  1. Great post.

    I practice a willing quasi-religious suspension of belief. Fantastical sporting performances are part of our modern cultural make up. Our heros and gods are the Bolts, Nadals and Cancelleras of this world.

    You’re either cynical or naive. Not sure which attitude is healthier. Being an innocent means you get burnt every time. Being a cynic means your very enjoyment of sport is reduced.

    I think taking a less grand self important view of professional sport is the only possible solution. But that would involve less sponsorship, less money and less hype.

    So not holding my breath.

  2. “the peer pressure in a sport like cycling is enormous. But if one rider can choose not to dope, they all can.”

    Like Greg LeMond said, the Tour de France can be won w/o the use of doping. You simply ensure that all starters of the race are clean, and that no doping takes place en route to Paris, and the first rider across the virtual finish line with the lowest overall time wins.

    Seems almost comically-simple.

    Good post.

  3. Thanks for your comments, guys. Ol – I sympathise enormously and I think the heavy investment of politics and commerce in sporting success is a big big problem. The huge rewards available to winners in many sports are a key motivator to dope. But money is far from being the only reward; we know, for instance, that people dope as amateurs and at masters level, where the prize money is negligible.

    A lot of people dope because they can; we shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which many professional athletes will look for any advantage and take almost any risk to succeed. These are not ‘normal’ individuals – or, rather, they are normal but live in an artificial word where they are mostly isolated from the things that affect the rest of us and this has an effect on their capacity to make mature, independent judgements about things like doping. Toning down the hype around sport would help a lot, in my view, and allow us to take a cooler, more detached view of how sport actually works and what it’s for.

    Joe – be interested to know what you think about Linus Gerdeman’s offer to have 24 hour chaperones at the Tour this year. On the surface of it, it seems to be quite open and honest and he’s obviously trying to repair the damage done by doping to the sport’s reputation in Germany. My feeling is that it will highlight just how difficult it is to monitor the activities of cyclists and it’s almost an admission that sports people can’t be trusted to “behave themselves”. We really shouldn’t have to treat them like children; but if they behave like children (“It wasn’t me what doped, it was my unborn twin, honest” *cough*), then we’re in a bit of a dilemma, aren’t we? But this may be a social problem, rather than a specifically sporting problem. I reckon we could all grow up a bit.

    Personally, I think the bio passport is a big step in the right direction and should be made a requirement in all professional sports, bar none. We need to give more power to independent testing and enforcement bodies and start using the law against the doctors, pharmacists and everybody who enables doping – make it difficult to get the dope and to administer it safely and effectively, and increase the likelihood of being caught. Change the whole risk/reward equation so it’s working against the athletes and not for them. It may take busting big big names to make the difference(I have several in mind).

    And criminalise doping everywhere. Almost all doping is enabled by criminal activity anyway and almost all successful doping results in financial fraud. The laws are there, so we should use them to scare the shit out of the dopers. As I believe you said yourself Joe: “I’m not fucking going to jail for cycling!”. They’ll soon tone it down.

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