This week, a polemic. I’ve been thinking about Maria Sharapova’s return to the circuit, the plan to wipe world records in athletics, and drugs generally in sports. The truth is, I can’t see a way out, and I don’t think I’m alone. The road goes nowhere. So the conclusion I keep coming to is: make performance enhancing drugs legal.
This is clearly not a popular view. But let’s try it out for a moment. I’m going to look at the main objections and try and unpack this. Bear with me.
Testing doesn’t work
Of course testing works on a basic level, but the big picture is testing clearly doesn’t work. We have a situation where retrospective testing has caught a whole bunch of athletes from London 2012 and Beijing 2008 years later. Is that good? Not really. The clean athletes have missed their moment of glory, the public has moved on, and the history books just look messy.
Also, as pointed out elsewhere, most major drug scandals are due to whistleblowers, not testing: Russia, Lance Armstrong, Balco. Even Ben Jonson was (probably) set up (he got busted on a drug he wasn’t taking, apparently).
Added to that, testing catches about 1 per cent of athletes. Whereas most estimates put non-approved drug use at around 30 to 40 per cent. It’s woeful. Even if we got to catching a third of athletes, there are generations that got away with it. The war was lost a long time ago. And in the future?
Why are we even bothering? Wada’s budget is a paltry $30m. Football clubs barely blink at that as a transfer fee. It’s not much more than a basic salary in some sports. You want to make it clean? Up the ante. Wada’s budget should be closer to, I dunno, say $500m to make a real difference. Why should we take this seriously if there’s no proper financial backing?
Everyone is at it
Not quite. But everyone is taking something to help them, whether legal or not. Maria Sharapova took meldonium for years. It wasn’t on the banned list, and then it was. She didn’t change, the law did. Is she a drugs cheat? Technically yes, but only because of timing, nothing else.
(Witness the hypocrisy over not giving her a wildcard to the French: without a hint of irony the chief said he wanted “to protect the high standards of the game played without any doubt on the result”. Seriously? After all the tennis match fixing allegations?)
So what about cortisone injections? They are ok, apparently, despite screwing up your knees for life. Bananas? Coffee? Energy drinks? What about taking an ice bath? Everyone wants an edge, and if it’s legal, you take it. The difference is just an arbitrary list. Half the stuff that is banned is fine for amateurs to take – just not professionals.
OK, so we don’t want athletes doping themselves to death, which they have in the past. Which , incidentally, is why monitoring and allowing drug use would be better. But if they want to kill themselves for glory, who should stop them? Ban wingsuits. Ban freediving. Ban boxing, motor racing and American Football, because they are all hugely risky. Don’t let people climb mountains, or for that matter, drive cars.
Plus, legal drugs are safer. You think some of the stuff athletes are taking is safe? There are stories of drugs usually used by vets, experimental stuff – how is that anything but dangerous? The “war” on PEDs creates a black market. That might not go away completely with legal use, but it would be reduced massively.
You’re a professional, probably. Doing a job. Where are you going to be in 180 days? With whom? Which city? I’m going to come and get a urine sample, regardless of what else you might be doing. Perhaps you are going to a wedding? Or a funeral? Bad luck. Pee in this cup.
Should we be this intrusive in athletes’ lives?
Catching the small fry
Take something that’s a bit like something banned (but not actually on the list), and you can be out for years. No warnings, no second chances. Sponsors dry up. You’re finished. Even if it was over-the-counter cough medicine.
Or there’s the collateral damage. Are you a clean Russian athlete? Bad luck, you’re out. And here’s a dose of hypocrisy and vitriol to go on top.
Catching the wrong guy
Rio Ferdinand was banned for eight months for missing a test. Did he take drugs in his career? I’d guess not, given that he offered to take the test the next day and also volunteered hair samples. Yet he was made into a moral example. Bravo. Who are we catching, and who are we missing?
The ‘level playing field’
This is a dumb argument, but seems to be wheeled out all the time. If someone uses drugs, it’s not a level playing field.
In fact, it’s never a level playing field. You want medals? Spend spend spend. Look at how Britain has shot up the medal table at the Olympics – with expensive programmes other countries can’t afford. All sport needs some money, but some more than others – why do you think rowers are mainly white upper-middle class? Have you met the equestrian or fencing teams?
The key to sporting success is access to good coaching. And good coaches cost money. As do good facilities. You’re from a poor country / background – bad luck, your odds of making it just got waaay longer in your chosen sport – if you can even afford to play it. You have money, I have drugs – which is fairer?
And let’s talk about the luck of being a naturally gifted athlete. Should we even that out? Why is genetic advantage ok, but drugs not?
OK, nice try. We’re getting into a moral mess here. So rules are there to be followed otherwise it’s chaos – that’s why we have penalties on the pitch, and no drugs off it. But rules are only what we decide. Change the rules, we can change what we think of as right and wrong. Lifting in rugby, pass back to the keeper, no-balls in cricket – everything is fluid. Give me rules, and I’ll show you how they have changed.
In the end
Instinctively, I want no drugs in sport. Realistically, it’s not going to happen. But even if we never get to a legalised system, we need to stop this binary cheat / clean thinking. It’s never that clear. And we are condemning ourselves to a world where we are bound to lose. We create a black-and-white world where there is no compassion, just a moving line that you can never cross. Perhaps there’s a better way.
The Drugs Won: The Case for Ending the Sports War on Doping