This week we celebrate exactly 20 years since the Sydney Paralympics. The well-known story is the incredible success of this momentous international event, the unknown story is that the Paralympic Games almost did not happen.
The revelations over the last couple of days have raised many issues about drugs in sport. However, I think there also needs to be some balance, which has been lacking so far.
I understand the reasons that theMinister for Sport Kate Lundy gave The Roar for the ACC presenting its “findings” without mentioning specific names. However, in doing so the ACC blacklisted the whole of Australian sport because some people are cheating.
In every walk of life there are some people who will do bad things. Here, because no names have been released, and no specific cases have been mentioned, the real extent of the problem, and whether it really is such a “black day” for Australian sport, remains unclear.
With the amount of testing done into Australian sport, I doubt that more than a small percentage of athletes are able to get away with doping.
There are a few areas in which the commentary has been lacking.
Ill-informed comments in the press and by politicians
A lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon who have no idea what they are talking about, and who have not done their research. An example of this was an article on The Roar by Spiro Zavos regarding drug cheats.
“Within the last 10 years there were rumours of some star players (not in Australia or New Zealand) using creatine to bulk up their generally frail frames into a wiryness that made them competitive in Test rugby.”
Creatine is not, and has never been, on any list of banned substances by the World Doping Authority.
It is found naturally in many foods such as red meat, it has a three hour half life in the body, you can only process a certain amount of creatine (eliminating the rest as waste), and it has not been proven to have any negative long term effects.
Jeff Kennett accused the AFL of having an unworkable drugs policy. “The only policy that will work in the interests of the clubs, the AFL and the players, is a zero tolerance policy to drugs, be they illicit or performance-enhancing.”
The AFL, ARU, ARL, and most other sports all adhere to WADA and ASDA drug lists. The problem isn’t that any of these sports allow people to use substances they shouldn’t be allowed to, or that they are not strict enough.
The problem with both Zavos and Kennett’s comments are that they confuse the general public. They lead people to start thinking that taking legal supplements, such as an amino acid pill or protein shake, is the same as taking steroids and should be banned.
Condemning sports nutrition
In the wake of the ACC report there are many people condemning the idea of having a club doctor, nutritionist, or sports scientist. Nutrition and sport science are a valid part of sport today.
Condemning them is simply naive. In the Olympics hundredths of a second can determine first to fifth place and in team sports the stamina or strength of a player can determine who wins.
Sports clubs and leagues are money-making entities, and if an individual wins, they can earn huge rewards. If by taking a legal protein or creatine or caffeine supplement, a sportsman can increase his performance and reach his maximum athletic potential, good on him.
Supplementation is just as much a part of sport as having a good coach; having a good aerobic, anaerobic, or gym trainer; or having a good sports psychologist.
People saying “in my day we never had supplements” or “all supplements should be banned” are simply showing ignorance.
The majority of supplements are derived from naturally occurring foods, and do not contain anything illegal or anything which damages the health of athletes. This is exactly why they cannot be banned.
However, when used judiciously they can help improved athletic performance.
Why some drugs are banned
So, why are some drugs banned in sport? Because governing bodies, sports drug agencies, and governments have decided that some substances are harmful, or give the athletes taking them an unfair advantage over other athletes.
Sports bodies care about the health of athletes because it dosen’t look good when former players get sick, and also because of the attitude of athletes towards drugs in sport.
There was a famous survey carried out by Robert Goldman, M.D., Ph.D., conducted biannually from 1982 to 1995. It asked elite athletes if they would take a drug that guaranteed them an Olympic gold medal but would kill them in five years.
Every time Goldman administered the survey, more than half those surveyed said they would. When you are competing at the highest level, dedicating all your time to being the best, win at all costs can become an obsession.
In the case of steroids, blood doping, and human growth hormone, there is strong evidence to prove their harmful effects in the short and long term. This includes effects on the heart, liver, reproductive organs, and psychological effects.
So these substances and practices are banned for the good of the athletes.
What is the problem in Australian sport?
The ASDA is seen as a best-practice sports drug testing agency. It does random testing in all the major team and Olympic sports in the country.
But, of course people are going to slip through the net. Why? Because it´s simply not viable to test everybody.
Imagine after an AFL or NRL game, you have between 40 and 50 players (including reserves), who are tired, and either celebrating or agitated.
There is simply not the time, resources or lab space available to test that many players. Additionally the majority of testing is urine testing, which cannot detect all drugs. Blood testing can detect more drugs, but it is invasive, and repeatedly taking blood could result in infection or other problems for athletes.
Anyway, the reality is that testing is not the only solution. Athletes at the highest level get around testing. Look at Lance Armstrong, who never failed a drugs test, or Victor Conte’s BALCO.
BALCO supplied top U.S. athletes with designer steroids that couldn’t be detected, and masking agents. Conte meticulously monitored athlete’s blood levels and biological markers to ensure they couldn’t be caught and that their health wasn’t being adversely affected.
Among his clients was Marion Jones (stripped of five Olympic gold medals from 2000), Tim Montgomery (Olympic gold medallist and 100-metre world record holder) and record-setting baseballer Barry Bonds.
All three were charged with various offences after documentation concerning them emerged from BALCO. They admitted to taking illegal drugs to enhance sporting performance, but none ever tested positive.
What can be done?
The best solution, combined with random testing, is simply education and monitoring of athletes. Clubs and governing bodies need to regularly give presentations to athletes about sports doping and its effects.
They also need to regularly remind them of examples such as Armstrong and Jones, who were at one stage rich and on top of the world due to sporting success, but doped, lied, were forced to admit their drug use, were stripped of their titles, and are now discredited and living in shame.
Constant education, combined with random testing, is the best way to stop prohibited drug use in Australian sport.