Why bother banning drugs in sport?

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Lance Armstrong has both energised and tarnished US Cycling - can it continue to grow? (AP Photo/Franck Prevel, File)

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“Should we bother about drugs in sport?” asks Glenn Mitchell. I thought it might have been a reflection on the failings of the status quo, but in this case, his answer is a resounding yes.

Yet the multitude of doping scandals mentioned in the article, and the sad likelihood that there are many more around the corner, must make us think about whether a fresh approach to the usual ‘war on drugs in sport’ might be in order.

In many ways, the debate over the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport mirrors the debate about the use of illicit drugs in society generally.

We are told that the war is being won and can be won. We are told that with more resources, we can fight the war more effectively.

We are told that those who break the rules are being held to account and punished.

Those suggesting that this approach (now in place for decades) is failing are muted, as an entire industry devoted to the continuation of the current policy powers on.

However, the scandal of Lance Armstrong’s doping should be enough to trigger our skepticism that attempts to ban performance enhancing drugs in sport have been futile.

Even more damning is the fact that not only has Lance been stripped of his titles but there is no other competitor those titles could possibly be awarded to in his absence, so tainted is an entire generation of cyclists.

We have to ask ourselves – if we are only detecting last decade’s drug cheats now, what may the current crop be up to that we lack the technology to detect?

Practicalities aside, Glenn Mitchell’s article makes three arguments in favour of the status quo.

Firstly, that use of performance enhancing drugs is unfair and against the ethos of sport; secondly that these drugs are harmful to athlete’s health; and thirdly that legalising drugs will flow on to harm those playing sport at an amateur level.

Let’s look at each of these.

On the ethos point, I would have thought that the “fairness” inherent in sport is not that the athletes come to the contest from positions of equality.

Rather, fairness derives from the rules of the game itself (dictating how the sport is played and how success is measured) and then how those rules are applied (usually impartially by an independent referee or umpire).

If, the aim of sport is to see how well an athlete or team can perform – to use Glenn’s test – to the full extent of what they are capable of, then how do we really feel about elite sporting academies like the AIS?

Or entire AFL teams being taken to away for altitude training camps? Or high-tech swimwear designed to reduce drag in the water?

The simple truth is that elite sport has now become a science – witness the number of people employed as fitness experts, sports scientists and the like by elite sporting teams and training academies.

To draw a distinction between these technological and scientific methods (fair) and drugs (unfair) is now looking rather pointless.

The second argument about stopping athletes from harming themselves is also an argument for banning boxing, rugby union, long-distance running, gridiron, cheerleading or any other sport that exposes yourself to serious, long-term injury.

My GP once said to me that he winced ever time he heard a football commentator describe a player’s actions in putting their body on the line as “courageous”.

Of course, we don’t ban these things, because we accept that people have the right to take calculated risks with their lives if that is what they should choose to do with their bodies.

That many professional athletes already jeopardise their long-term health by playing through serious injuries with the aid of painkillers, or by running back on to the field following a concussion doesn’t seem to really bother anyone (not least Mr. Mitchell who thinks it makes no sense to ban use of painkillers in sport).

The third argument that this will flow on to amateur sport is perhaps the silliest of the three.

The gulf between elite and amateur athletes is now so massive as to mean there is little, if any, connection between how people participate in them.

The former is a career choice by single-minded people of single-minded devotion to a goal.

The latter is a hobby, comprising people who earn their money some other way and dabble in their chosen sport on the weekends.

In this context it is ludicrous to suggest that weekend cyclists and swimmers would be influenced by the legalisation of drugs at an elite level to swap their weeked café latte and a muffin over breakfast for something more performance-enhancing.

The simple truth is that in an era where sporting success at an elite level is incredibly lucrative, the temptation to use performance-enhancing drugs is always going to be too great for some.

Better testing and detection technologies can only go so far since the aim of the “drug cheat” and those supporting them is always to remain one step ahead.

Let’s not forget that Lance Armstrong passed over 200 drug tests on his path to seven Tour titles.

So, if the current policy is a colossal failure, what is the alternative? At least a cautious legalisation of some drugs in some sports is worth further thought.

Don Talbot, architect of Australia’s recent golden era in the pool, certainly thought so in 2007 when he suggested that sports authorities consider legalising the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport.

Even IOC supremo Juan Antonio Samaranch dared to suggest in 1998 that substances that do not damage an athlete’s health should not be prohibited.

It could be up to individual sports to decide on the appropriate setting for their own sport – some like cycling might cede to the inevitable and open up their sport to use of a range of drugs, whereas others with a history of stricter compliance (or where drug taking is less beneficial) might choose to keep the status quo for now.

We would all benefit. Athletes would be able to do what they were most likely going to do anyway, this time in a transparent manner which minimises the risks and allows them access to the right information about the drugs they are using.

The public would be spared the endless speculation and scandal about the performances of their athletes.

Not a perfect solution by any means, but at least a more honest way forward.