Notepad on Life

August 26, 2013

Doping in sport – a few cautionary words as the ‘PED Spring’ gathers pace

Filed under: News,Sport — - @ 11:30 am
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The slow trickle with which these things start is undoubtedly under way.

Several times in recent months, I have read or listened to people telling us we need to change the way we view the use of performance-enhancing drugs by sportsmen.

Appropriately enough, given that it has form in this area, Spiked led the way with a piece giving floor-space to the argument that we should chill out about performance-enhancing drugs.

‘Performance-enhancing drugs are really just natural substances that are present in the body’, he says. ‘[Taking them is] just modifying physiology and it would be crazy to set limits to it.’ He illustrates this point with an analogy: ‘People try to drink water during endurance events. If you drink too much, you’ll kill yourself, but if you don’t drink enough, you’ll dehydrate. So people want to maximise the amount of water and glucose they take on board – and it’s the same for testosterone and oxygen-carrying capacity. So I think you should look at these substances, from testosterone to EPO, according to a better set of values.’

Then there was this, from columnist Jeff Neuman:

“I am not sure how I feel about performance-enhancing drugs in general.  When we root for a team, we want the players on that team to do everything in their power to win games.  If that means cutting a few corners – scuffing a baseball; corking a bat; disdaining the bag on a double-play pivot – so be it.  I will believe fans care deeply about PEDs when a player returns from a suspension and is booed by his home fans.  PEDs are part of an improvement continuum; we want better performance, and we as a society are not opposed to chemical enhancement.

“Let he or she who is without Viagra or Valium or Zoloft or Xanax cast the first aspersion.”

Finally, I listened to a sports radio podcast in which a former Major League baseball player defended the use of PEDs as an inevitable help up the career ladder for young Latin-American players seeking to escape the poverty of their upbringing and help their families. If they’d been around when he’d been playing, hell, yes he’d have taken ‘em.

It would be hard not to hear a long-closed door creaking open here and to a perceive a future in which the stuff an athlete introduces into his system will be no more contentious an issue than an F1 team’s choice of tyre compound. Before this supposed age of enlightenment dawns in full however, one or two points need to be made:

  • “we as a society are not opposed to chemical enhancement” – a generalisation for which some statistical back-up would be welcome
  • ‘The overwhelming majority of athletes I know would do anything, and take anything, short of killing themselves, to improve performance.’ Such drive should be seen as admirable, not a crime,’ concludes the Spiked article. Again, a generalisation that simply begs to be called out. So any sort of cheating is admirable? Wrecking your body is admirable? Persuading impressionable young people to do likewise is admirable? ‘Drive’ conquers all, apparently: by that criterion, Hitler was a superstar.
  • ‘Performance-enhancing drugs are really just natural substances that are present in the body…[Taking them is] just modifying physiology and it would be crazy to set limits to it,’ Julian Savulescu, Oxford professor of practical ethics tells Spiked. I’m no scientist but everything I read about the human body tells me what a beautifully-balanced machine it is. If you’re going to modify its physiology, I suspect that setting limits would be the first thing any doctor advised.
  • “…in reality, doping is little different to taking glucose during a race to help you perform as well as you can.” Savulescu again. Is it not the case, though, that you give people an inch and they take a yard? Naturally-occurring substances today, maybe something a little more contrived tomorrow. I recently found myself in conversation with someone whose company works with the anti-doping agencies and he presented the flipside to Savulescu’s blandishments in scathing terms. Too many pronouncements being made in favour of relaxing drug control are born of ignorance, he insisted. In reality, so desperate are athletes to win, not only are they insufficiently fussy as to what goes into their bodies, they don’t ask many questions about where it’s come from. When the public wakes up to the consequences of such ‘drive’, he assured me, “It will kill sport.”
  • I wonder whether it will even take that much. Even Savulescu concedes, after all, that the prospect of sport becoming a competition between pharmaceutical companies is “a legitimate concern…”. People have commerce shoved down their throats in the workplace from Monday to Friday: they want their weekends to be free of it. For all that big business dominates British soccer, spectators know that every Saturday or Sunday, all the money and power politics gets shoved to one side for 90 minutes and it comes down to nothing other than 22 men and a ball. They can live with that. Just as they can eight people and a starting pistol. If you’re going to start introducing the question of which one happens to be backed by the best laboratory, however…
  • This same argument makes the Viagara analogy introduced by Jeff Neuman a red herring. We’re not competing with anyone when we strive for firmer skin or a longer erection; we’re just trying to make our lives a little better. When it comes down to formal sporting contests with much glory and money at stake, however, I believe people want to watch a battle between humans, not chemical compounds.

As money talks, it will probably come down to whether enough of us are turned off by a PED free-for-all to render it unviable but its advocates should at least give the possibility serious thought. You only have to look at the swathe of broken families around us to know that the ‘free love’ Sixties mindset had a price. ‘Free dope’ in the Teenies mightn’t be all plain sailing, either.

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