Athletics: The case for letting athletes take drugs

Legal doping may be preferable to the illegal variety, says Pat Butcher
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The Independent Online
Short of making it a criminal offence, it is probably much too late to prevent drug-taking in sport. Thanks to the ignorance and incompetence of the major sports federations, competitors had a head start of around 20 years on the drug-testers.

So maybe it is time to ask whether we want or need to stop drug-taking in sport. Mainstream opinion remains opposed and the principal arguments against doing so are based on fairness and health.

But whoever said sport was fair? The biggest and best usually win anyway. At 6ft 8in, your son has a better future as a high jumper or basket ball player than someone just five feet. Likewise, your diaphanous daughter is more cut out for the gymnastics mat than her dumpy sister.

European competitors have already indulged in blood doping. The process involves removing a pint of blood, training hard while the body restores the amount, and then reintroducing the blood. The result is more red blood corpuscles and more oxygen It's like altitude training, only it isn't. The International Amateur Athletic Federation says it is cheating, because it is not natural.

Testosterone, however, is natural. In fact, there is nothing more natural, if you are male. It is what makes you male. But if you receive a bit more testosterone, it helps you train harder. It does wonders for women. Anabolic steroids are nothing more than synthetic testosterone. So what's the big deal?

The only known death in athletics from drug abuse is that of Bergit Dressel, who could have started a pharmacy with the stuff she ingested and injected.

Dressel, a moderately successful West German heptathlete, died in 1987, when her auto-immune system failed, largely because the hospital where she was being treated for an illness was kept in the dark about performance-enhancing drugs she had been taking. In fact, she died from ignorance.

In 1987, I spoke off the record to a doctor who admitted supplying and monitoring drugs for British international athletes. Referring to himself jokingly, like the athletes did, as "the junkie doctor from Edinburgh," he claimed, "I'd rather have my son on a properly monitored steroid programme for three years than my daughter taking the contraceptive pill."

He claimed, like Professor Armin Kluemper, from Friberg, Germany, that, left to their own devices, athletes would probably overdose. Kluemper, who has become internationally famous for treating athletes' ailments, among them several British ones, has also broadcast his view on steroids.

"Since we live in a democracy, I shall continue to leave it to the adult athletes to decide for themselves whether they take anabolic steroids," he said.

Charlie Francis, coach to the infamous Ben Johnson, maintained that a properly monitored drugs regime does no harm at all. According to Francis, Johnson only took half the dosage that East German women used.

Wilf Paish, a leading British athletics and rugby league coach, has long been ambivalent about the blanket nature of censure on sports drugs.

"We've got to start differentiating between real sports people and the paid performers," Paish said "If a pop artist took a substance to enhance performance, nobody would bat an eyelid."

Dave Bedford has sufficiently good memories of his days as a world record holder for 10,000 metres to be aghast at that view. Now director of the London Marathon, Bedford has also been the chairman of the British Athletic Federation's drugs advisory group. He said: "If we got rid of drugs legislation, we would automatically condemn all future generations of participants, knowing that if they wanted to get to the top, they must take drugs."

But how long will the Bedfords in this sporting life hold sway?