A dopey debate

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on the furore about drugs in sport.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

What are the sporting authorities on, that makes them lose their senses at the first sniff of a drugs story? In the latest drug-induced panic, several unnamed footballers are reported to be in deep trouble with the Football Association after failing drugs tests. They have apparently tested positive for cocaine and ecstasy. Coke? That’s about as performance-enhancing as Pepsi. Why should footballers be banned by the FA for taking recreational drugs during their recreation time?

Take a random sample of the furore about drugs in sport, and you will usually find that it tests positive for sanctimony, with a heavy dose of double standards and traces of high-grade idiocy on all sides. If we want a more sober, rational debate about these issues, perhaps it is time to ban the drug testers from sport and bring it all out into the open.

Athletics remains the main focus of the anti-drugs crusade. The British sprinter Dwain Chambers has tested positive for the new ‘designer steroid’ THG, and many top American athletes are reported to be caught up in the brewing THG scandal. But why do we try to draw such a hard line between a list of banned substances (many of them available over a chemist’s counter), and all manner of other artificial aids that are deemed acceptable? After all, athletes use everything from painkillers and legal ‘supplements’ to air-soled running shoes and body hugging sportswear to gain an ‘unnatural’ advantage. Perhaps we should quarantine them in camps for a year before the Olympics, feed them exclusively on carrots and make them run barefoot in vest and pants.

What about the true Olympic spirit, the notion that taking part is more important than winning and all of that? Come off it. Top-level sport has always been about the pursuit of excellence and victory, and athletes have done whatever they can to reach a little higher. Presumably those who worry about drugs wrecking the 2004 Olympics in Athens hanker after an age of innocence like the 1904 Olympics in St Louis, when an American won the marathon on an energising cocktail of strychnine and brandy.

And those who claim that the use of drugs is a symptom of our over competitive, money-fuelled win-at-all-costs sporting culture might like to look a little further back in Olympic history. They will find that, in the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece (where competitors would use whatever aids they could get their hands on), there were no silver medals for finishing second, and losers were less likely to be offered congratulations than the chance to commit suicide. THG and other banned substances are not magic potions. They cannot make a champion athlete out of a clodhopper. Winners still need the legs, the lungs and, above all, the heart to succeed. At this year’s World Championships, the men’s 100 metres was won by a relative unknown in the slowest time for 20 years. Dwain Chambers came fourth. If the performances of Chambers and today’s other top sprinters really were determined by drugs, they might consider suing their chemists under the Trades Descriptions Act.

Banning the testers, and allowing athletes openly to take what supplements they want to, would at least help to level the playing field. It might also allow for an honest discussion of what should be the main focus of concern – the potential effect of these substances on the athletes’ health.

Unfortunately, the debate is never just about the use of drugs in sport. It is more about the use of drugs in society, and the use of the drugs issue in politics. That is why there seems as little chance of a sensible outcome as there is of Britain topping the medals table in Athens next year.

At a time when everybody senses that the authorities are losing their much hyped ‘war on drugs’, the crusaders seem to have chosen the field of sport to make a last stand on the moral high ground. When everything else about drug use in society appears to be up for grabs, sport is one area where they still find it simple to draw the line between good and evil, at least rhetorically, and encounter the least opposition. How much easier to ‘crack down’ on a few coke-sniffing footballers than to tackle the underlying causes of drug-related problems in our cities and communities.

Nor does the hysteria about drugs in sport do anything to enhance the natural highs we can get from the spectacle itself. Diego Maradona, the greatest footballer ever, was a notorious coke-head away from the pitch. He was kicked out of a World Cup for taking weight-loss aids. The same fate befell Shane Warne, the finest cricketer on earth. But nobody has invented a drug that can make you dribble the ball like Diego, or spin one like Shane.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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