Who’s afraid of drugs in sport?

Drugs are useless in interactive sports like tennis, but they may help to extend athletes’ careers. So let’s un-ban them.

The sun is shining but really it should be raining, for Wimbledon started this week. And as Londoners know only too well, this is usually the cue for a downpour. Yet we can look forward to two weeks of shock and awe as the very best players in the world wow us with their ability to whip a shot across an opponent or retrieve an apparently irretrievable ball.

While there will be enormous debate over the next few days about whether Roger Federer can continue his run of consecutive championships, or if Venus Williams can defend her title, one topic that is unlikely to come up is that of drug-taking. The intricacies of new doping methods and anti-drugs tests are increasingly part of every Olympic Games or Tour de France, yet Wimbledon and the Euro 2008 football tournament, for example, remain immune to the drugs debate.

This illustrates a key point that is frequently missed in the debate about ‘drugs in sport’: drug-taking only affects certain sports. These include some athletics disciplines, cycling, swimming and weightlifting. There is no ‘drugs crisis’ in football, rugby or tennis. The other major error in the drugs debate is the assumption that drugs dramatically improve an athlete’s performance; this isn’t true.

The lack of drugs scandals in sports such as football and tennis reveal something striking about the nature of ‘performance enhancers’. When sportsmen are brought into direct contact with each other, and when this confrontation determines the end result, then their skills are put to the test in a very different way to the skills of athletes taking part in something like the long jump or high jump. In clashing sports, skill is paramount, and a major factor in determining the result. Skill combines with power, anticipation and a number of other factors, all of which are required to achieve a high standard in order to win out in the competition.

This dynamic is compounded, and made still more complex, in the case of team sports. There is not yet a drug that can be clinically proven to enhance an individual’s performance as part of a team. There is nothing you can take to make yourself a better rugby or netball player. There are occasional, highly mistaken, claims that cocaine might be a performance enhancer in football, though of course no empirical study has shown any relationship between snorting cocaine and playing better footie.

When football legend Diego Maradona was suspended from football for 15 months in 1991 after he was found to have taken cocaine, it was an entirely personal fall from grace – the white stuff had done nothing whatever to enhance his ability on the pitch. When Romanian footballer Adrian Mutu was sacked by Chelsea for taking cocaine in October 2004, it was also treated as a very personal problem rather than professional cheating – and an expensive one. If reports are to be believed, Mutu has been ordered to pay some £9.5million in compensation to the club.

Where drugs can play a role in performance enhancement, their impact is frequently exaggerated. When an athlete is tested positive for drugs after having won an event, it is assumed that the drugs were responsible for his victory. Yet the making of an athlete is a complex process, and a host of factors contribute to his or her success. An initial training programme of around 10 years, a high level of natural ability and a highly honed competitive spirit all contribute to the success of athletes in tough competitions. Man, in a sporting context, is not a machine. In certain sports, drugs might have some impact on performance – but not a great deal.

Until recently, and with the exception of the East Africans in middle- and long-distance running, it was very rare to see an athlete from the developing world on the medal podium of a major sporting event. Despite having nearly one sixth of the world’s population, India only managed one medal at Athens 2004: a silver in table tennis. Being from the West, China or from the old Eastern bloc, where significant resources can be targeted at the individual in training, is still the best advantage one can have in athletic events.

It is not drugs but advances in sports science and knowledge of training principles that have had the biggest impact on ‘performance enhancement’ in sports. Athletes are now stronger, faster and more skilful than ever before – and this isn’t down to drugs or simply to better equipment.

In tennis, improvements in playing standards are frequently put down to better equipment; stronger, better-made tennis racquets are often said to have increased tennis players’ power. This is similar to the argument made about performance-enhancing drugs – and like that argument, it simply isn’t very clear cut. Strikingly, when fast-serving Australian player Mark Philippoussis serves with his new modern racquet, he reaches a speed of 138 miles per hour; when he was asked to serve with an old-fashioned Dunlop Maxply, he served at 136 miles per hour.

If drugs only make a minor contribution to performance, should they really be banned? There are many ways in which currently banned substances could be of great benefit to sportsmen. One of the main effects of steroids is that they help athletes to recover from training sessions and injury by increasing the ability of their muscles to repair themselves. Enhancing the longevity of an athlete’s career would be of great benefit to sport in general, allowing athletes to continue competing at a high level for long periods of time.

In modern sport, governing bodies are calling for more and more draconian measures to detect and punish drug use. This only exacerbates suspicion of sportsmen, presents the ‘will to win’ (at any price) as something bad, and prevents sportsmen from using substances that might make their lives easier and their careers longer. A fairly laissez faire approach to drug-taking in sport would be more desirable than the current ‘ban all’ approach. Cheating is only cheating if it is defined as being illegal in the first place.

Dan Travis is a tennis coach and author of In Support of Competitive Sport. The next Manifesto Club club night, ‘Drugs: Where Do We Draw the Line?’ is on Thursday 26 June in central London. For more details, visit the Manifesto Club website

Previously on spiked

Sean Collins described how baseball’s drug witch-hunts undermined the game. Matthias Heitmann argued that Tour de France competitors should be allowed to take drugs. Tim Black thought Dwain Chambers was guilty of being cocky. Dan Travis lamented the collapse of school sport into mere activity. Or read more at spiked issue: Sport.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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