The Message: The Dope Show

It is easy to vilify those who take banned substances in the pursuit of sporting glory, but some of those who would be named and shamed are far more sympathetic figures than we would like to admit...

Doping in sport is, at this stage it seems, a grim fact of life. Hardly a month goes by without a rake of new positive tests being revealed. The headlines become more and more sensational by the week. And the righteousness of anti-doping campaigners reaches new levels of fire and brimstone indignation. 

During the Tour de France, fans threw urine at the ultimate race winner, the British rider Chris Froom, on the basis of rumours, amplified if not started in the media, that he was, or is, guilty of doping. Meanwhile, Britain’s Olympic gold medal winner, Mo Farah, has been forced to run the gauntlet of accusations that he is ‘unclean’, because of his refusal to distance himself from the controversial coach Alberto Salazar.

By the look of things, however, it is going to get worse before it gets better – including here in Ireland.

Even at a glance, the latest revelations, on the theme of doping in athletics, published by the Sunday Times last weekend, were startling. According to the report, approximately a third of the medals won at the six World Championships and three Olympic Games that took place between 2001 and 2012 may have been tarnished by blood-doping practices. The report placed 146 medals into the questionable category. 55 of these were gold. Apparently, these latest figures apply mainly to endurance events, which had previously been assumed to be at the cleaner end of track and field, compared to sprinting or throwing events – which have seen a hugely greater number of athletes banned over the past 20 years and more.

On the basis of the report, the International Association of Athletics Federations stands accused of complicity in sweeping evidence of potentially widespread doping under the carpet. While nothing has yet been proven, and athletes are entitled to the presumption of innocence, this is big deal – all the more so here in Ireland, since Irish athletes accounted for what seems like a disproportionately high 3% of the cases about which questions are now bring asked. We are likely to see a lot of finger-pointing over the coming months, as individual athletes here come under suspicion, and the attendant glare of media attention intensifies. It could all get deeply unedifying. 

I have never quite been able to share the righteous anger of the anti-doping messiahs, nor the associated zeal for grandiose punishment.  For a start, it always struck me as odd that a lot of the people who take what they assume to be the high moral ground on this issue, and denounce from Olympian heights anyone who tests positive, often see themselves as among the more sympathetic to those who otherwise find themselves on the wrong side of the system for one reason or another. 

I know that there is money – often big money – involved in sport, and that someone else is always being deprived to one degree or another if an athlete, a cyclist, a weight-lifter or a golfer uses dope effectively to become the top dog in his or her discipline. And you only have to look at the fortune accrued by someone like Lance Armstrong, and the culture of bullying and intimidation that was necessary to protect him from being rumbled conclusively over an extended period, to conclude that the culture of doping was, and is, all pretty shabby and horrible. 

But even in high profile cases like that, it has always struck me that it is a human failing and should be treated as such

I have a huge amount of sympathy for those who have been denied medals by athletes who are ultimately found guilty of doping. I am around long enough to remember seeing an in-form Sonia O’Sullivan (pictured) being trounced into fourth place in the 3,000 metres, in the World Championships in 1993, as three unheralded runners from China ran her out of the medals in circumstances that immediately rang alarm bells. Indeed, since the more recent advent of the so called ‘biological passport’, we have seen a number of celebrated cases in which Irish athletes  – notably Derval O’Rourke, Roisin McGettigan and Olive Loughnane –  have been elevated to medal-winning positions in major championships years after the fact, when individuals who had won medals were later discovered to have been doping.

For those cheated out of medals in the first place, this is surely scant consolation.

But I also feel sympathy for those others, like Irish runners Martin Fagan and Cathal Lombard, who do end up somewhere down the slippery slope. Both of these middle distance runners tested positive for performance enhancing drug use. Both served suspensions. And yet, there is a particular brand of outraged righteousness in play, which suggests that they should never, ever be allowed to compete again. It is as if it were a crime worse than, say, violent assault or drink driving, following which, in the normal course, someone can walk out of court, or prison, and get on with the rest of their lives.

Which, of course, is the way it should be in any enlightened society, where rehabilitation is seen as a fundamental right. 

The curious thing is that at every level in sport, competition is such that people are constantly straining to discover every little potential physiological advantage. In schools rugby here in Ireland, creatine has been widely used for years, to assist teenage players to bulk up, to increase strength and to reduce muscle damage from high intensity sporting activity. Creatine is not currently a banned substance. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t be in the future.

I play football every Saturday for Hot Press Munchengladbach. I have never taken an artificial supplement of any kind to improve performance or to aid fitness, strength or endurance. The thought of taking creatine is monstrously unappealing to me. Apart from the pleasure of competing and maybe even winning, more than anything else, for me sport is a way of holding back, just a little bit, the natural ravages that assail us all physically in the long run.

But I do drink beetroot juice regularly, following reports that it increases stamina. And I have no compunction whatsoever about drinking coffee before a game, also in the (current) knowledge that caffeine has also been proven to improve performance in prolonged exercise.

Neither of these substances is banned, though caffeine was, until 2004, on the World Anti Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances. In fact it is still banned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the US, if concentrations in an athlete’s urine exceed 15 micrograms per millilitre. I drank it in the normal way before games in the period before 2004, without any knowledge that it might be helping me on the field of play and equally innocent of the fact that it was a banned substance.

I now see players gulping back various energy drinks on a regular basis, that are loaded with caffeine. They do it because they believe that the caffeine will trigger all of the effects as set out on the Irish Sports Council website – to paraphrase: increased muscle contractibility; increased time to exhaustion; improved concentration; enhanced alertness; and reduced fatigue.

If it is true that caffeine – or indeed coffee – has some or all of these effects, then why is it now legal when once it wasn’t? On the one hand, WADA may have had to accept that it is impractical to ban coffee, especially where random testing is concerned. Fuck it, even tea has a high level of caffeine in it. On the other hand, they may have recognised the commercial muscle of the energy drinks companies and decided that they couldn’t successfully combat it. Either way, it underlines that everything in this zone is just a little bit greyer than those who preach hardline, black and white, zero tolerance, and maximum sentencing, might like everyone to believe.

For me, the fact that some coaches in rugby schools quietly encourage the use of creatine is creepily disquieting. Some of the kids playing rugby now look grotesquely physically over-developed for their age, and on occasion, give the impression of being gruesomely muscle-bound too. Between the use of creatine and doing weights at too early an age, they risk badly damaging their physical development: they get thick, bloated necks and unnatural, barrel chests. And when they stop playing, they frequently run to fat and look even odder at a very young age. It is a syndrome from which they may never recover.

Medical views on the use of creatine as a supplement are split. Dr Joe Cummiskey, chief medical officer with the Olympic Council of Ireland, is hostile.  “In my view, anyone who is using creatine is one step away from using anabolic steroids,” he said. In contrast, Dr Noel McCaffrey, the former GAA All-Star and lecturer in DCU, believes that creatine is safe for a healthy individual. “Some of my athletes would have used it in recent years and others chose not to,” he said. “And there did seem to be some positive effects in that they didn’t feel as tired.”

The bottom line in all of this is that sports scientists are working furiously to find ways of whatever kind to improve the performance of athletes in every sporting code. Today’s innovations may be banned in a decade’s time. Equally, as with caffeine, approaches that are banned today might just be legal somewhere further on down the road.

Only a fool would try to say that there is no difference between a systematic, deliberate attempt to knowingly cheat on the one hand and a willingness to experiment with actions not yet contemplated by the bureaucrats on the other. But I wonder if the chasm is as great as we are often led to believe. 

That taking risks with consuming chemicals to enhance sporting performance is a bad idea is obvious. The steroid-guzzling women who lost their gender identity in the cause of chasing Olympic gold for the old East Germany, among other Eastern block countries, are just the most blatant example of individuals who become victims of a campaign for national legitimacy, that was played out blindly on the sporting stage. 

In some ways, schools rugby coaches who encourage the consumption of supplements, at a vulnerable stage in the lives of teenage players, are guilty of a similar recklessness to those East German coaches. But the lone wolf, who is driven by neurosis or desperation, or both, into taking something – anything – to make up for the body’s failings is a different creature altogether. He or she needs our sympathy and compassion.

These athletes certainly do not, in my view, deserve to be vilified, spat at, shat on and, when it gets really bad, effectively crucified, by our increasingly numerous, self-styled custodians of moral and sporting purity. 

Let’s remember that, if it comes to the stage that people start naming new names.


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