Perils of a uniquely unethical sporting age

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JOHN MCENROE'S suspicion that injuries causing eight withdrawals from the US Open can be traced to widespread use of the legal muscle-builder, creatine, is serious enough to justify further investigation by the sporting authorities.

Probably no sooner did the chemists come up with a concoction that met with the regulations about performance-enhancing substances than many of today's heroes were sprinkling it on their cornflakes. Doubtless they were encouraged in this, as they are in most things that are likely to reflect well on their coaches and management.

So far, only the Rugby League has advised against the use of creatine, although - and this is much to their credit - the French attempted unsuccessfully to prevent the substances use in the Five Nations' Championship.

The possibilities are worrying. Not only that the extraordinary number of fitness problems reported from Flushing Meadows are, as McEnroe concludes, a direct result of creatine - "Guys on the tour think it causes cramps and pulled muscles," he said - but that it may explain a marked increase in football injuries. When players talk about pride and emotion all the time it begins to dawn on us that perhaps we are dealing with types who are just as confused as we are.

The thing to remember is that a lot of people are trying to find out what's inside sports performer's heads. A baseball manager, Mayo Smith, once said: "Open up a ball-player's head and you know what you'd find? A lot of little broads and a jazzband."

On that fairly common basis, the performer is easily seduced by the promise of improvement that creatine offers in much the same way as they submit to pain-killing injections that carry the threat of a crippled later life. Gradually it may be sinking in that nobody knows exactly what is going out there. Many attend, few comprehend.

All of today's reasonable speculation explains why doubts about the integrity of sport might as well be maps to the lost city of Atlantis for all the enlightenment they provide. How much of it is psychological, anyway? Sixty years ago, the Wolverhampton Wanderers manager, Major Frank Buckley, caused a stir by announcing that his players were being given monkey-gland injections in preparation for the FA Cup final against Portsmouth. Fears for the monkey population were removed when Portsmouth scored a 4-1 victory. More seriously, in the 1960s, a First Division manager was suspected of stoking up his men with more than colourful rhetoric. It was said that you could see it in their eyes.

As a teenage professional footballer, together with a team-mate who was even less impressively endowed in the muscle department, I was required to take daily a pint of Sanatogen and glucose for body building purposes. It was not long before a famed traditionalist suggested that more sustenance could be obtained from a bottle of stout. If there was any truth in this it did not wash with the manager after we were reported for returning to our digs in a disorderly fashion. "You weren't told to swim in the stuff," he growled.

In 1970, shortly before England set off to defend the World Cup in Mexico, the squad's physician, Neil Phillips, came across a tablet, produced ironically in West Germany, that enabled players to ingest a quantity of salt that would normally have caused them to vomit. Not one of the England players suffered from cramp during the tournament.

This was a perfectly legitimate benefit. But come closer to our time and consider the debate that rages over what constitutes unacceptable assistance. A colleague for whom I have a great deal of affection and respect feels that we should not greatly concern ourselves with the ethical weakness of athletes. "We might as well let them get on with it, sit back and enjoy the circus," he says.

Because we live in a uniquely unethical sporting age, one that our grandfathers could never have guessed at. And there must be plenty of people who agree with this argument.

As for McEnroe's concern about creatine, it only goes to show what a good American boy can be if only he grows into an adult.