Can professional sport ever really be “natural”?
The Olympics are in a few months. They’d throw me out.
Right now, I would fail an Olympic-style drug test so hard it would make your teeth rattle. None of this A sample/B sample business, both specimens would probably just glow in the dark.
Why? Because I’m in the throes of a come-down from a workout that makes Pumping Iron look like Anne of Green Gables, and to survive it I took an array of stimulants which would give most people a coronary just looking at the bottle.
I haven’t broken the law, by the way – this is all perfectly legal. However, the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) would consider me well out of line. For my midday Monday workout, I would probably get a two year ban from competition. What would my sponsors say?
And this isn’t unusual. Plenty of performance enhancing drug use is perfectly legal (caffeine, beta-blockers and asthma medication, for instance, figure prominently in some sports).
So how should we interpret a recent study in which a majority of Australians are in favour of criminalising performance enhancing drug use in sports? Didn’t think that one through, did we?
(Are people confusing performance-enhancing drugs with recreational drugs? Not all sports are rugby league, you know…)
This kind of thing is just one wrinkle amongst many in the rich constellation of confusion which surrounds the problem of drugs in sport. But facts, sadly, and any kind of reflective thought in general are completely antithetical to how most people think about the issue. The hysteria goes hand-in-glove with the raft of high-profile cases of doping over the last few years.
So, let’s start with the facts. The whole basis of sport is arbitrary - a pure social construction. That’s why it’s very easy to change the rules when the circumstances around them demand it. We can make cricket balls or pitches trickier to play after we get better cricket bats, restrict baseball bat designs, change the rugby scrum laws after head and neck injuries, etc.
And, of course, progressively add new drugs to the list of banned substances as providing an unfair advantage. There is no such thing as intrinsic cheating – this is something that only exists when we have a violation of a standard which has an official mandate.
So let’s look at our official mandates. There are some sports, like bodybuilding or strongman, which have a reduced interest in drug testing (for obvious reasons). But the vast majority of sports have a similar code to, or are subject to the rules of, WADA. A few years back, WADA declared the presence of any performance enhancing drug, regardless of its level or how it got there, to be a rule violation - “strict liability”
In other words, WADA’s solution is to punish the presence of drugs, not the presence of cheating.
It sounds sensible and no-nonsense on the face of it, but from that we end up with the ridiculous situation of Alberto Contador - testing positive to a level of a banned substance so low that the chances of it being deliberately ingested are practically zero - being stripped of his Tour de France win and banned from competition. To say nothing of any matter of confidentiality, or the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
After more than a year, a final arbitration in Contador’s case took almost 100 pages of notes to acknowledge that a) the test he failed was almost certainly accidental, and b) this doesn’t matter under the rules as they exist – because they couldn’t prove how it was accidental.
This did not stop the wolves, though. A quick Google trip will allow you to pursue in great detail how readily the word ‘cheat’ was flung around in light of this result. No-one offered a reason why the best cyclist in the world would take a dosage of an easily detectable substance that was too small to have any performance benefit in the middle of the most heavily drug-tested event on the world stage.
I suppose at the very centre of it all, people have an uncertain idea about protecting the “humanness” of sport, the spirit of endeavour and greatness achieved through human toil, and that drugs represent a level of “artificiality” - something from outside the body.
This is argument is perfectly acceptable – but it certainly does draw as uncertain the status of oxygen tents, and hyperbaric chambers, and ice baths, and legal supplements, and gym machines designed to mimic human strength curves, and electromuscular stimulators, and movement/gait analysis, and blood metabolite monitoring, and the vast array of legal and grey market supplements… suddenly as “natural”.
What is the specific line where modifying a body for success becomes bad?
There isn’t a way to make this issue go away. Both the current testing system (and any proposed kind of legalisation I’ve ever seen) have serious problems, and the hysteria about drug use runs so deep that to even question the structure and logic of drug testing is to invite ridicule. Some of you have probably already skipped to the end to bray loudly at me about cheating.
But, the one thing we can do is be aware that this full-volume hysterical morality is not helping. Here’s a start: perhaps insanely competitive people like athletes are to be respected, and their feats are to be put on a pedestal, but the people themselves shouldn’t be. I’m not sure at what point in time we started to expect moral excellence in the company of physical excellence, or a balanced respect for contemporary values from the utterly single-minded.
If we continue to do so, in the world of a world of masking agents and selective androgen receptor modulators and combinatorial chemistry, we will be making heroes and then damning them forever.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…