Rowing: The day I knew I was beaten by steroid users: Hugh Matheson, who won an Olympic silver rowing medal in 1976, reveals evidence of a sporting drug culture

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The Independent Online
THE LAST thing the athlete who has succumbed to the pharmacist's lure thinks about, is cheating. All competitors are in the business of overcoming a number of petty disabilities to go faster, higher, stronger. There are no gold medallists who have not trained for years to get to the start line of the Olympic final, and along the way several of their fellows will have been forcibly ejected after testing positive.

When you are training for the top, coming in late, muscles too dead to climb the stairs, when you are turning round for the seventh repeat that evening of your entire Olympic event, the mind is not telling you the same things as the TV newsreaders.

Each athlete in active competition is constantly assessing the three or four individuals or teams which stand in the way of that season's target. Are they better coached? Do they train longer or harder? Is their training better designed? Is their equipment better? Do they take drugs?

As a rower, I felt I knew that many of the squads I faced were using anabolic steroids to increase the amount of training they were able to sustain. Much of this was confirmed after 1989, and in 1992 I received documentary evidence from a West German source which described the East German experiments with drugs among oarsmen in 1976 and 1980.

This had curiously little emotional effect. A suspicion had been confirmed. I have never been tempted to assume that, but for this, I would have won an Olympic gold instead of silver. In the monomanic world of the top athlete, the only thing which counts is: who crossed the line first? There are many reasons they trained for longer than we did. We went to work through the day and they were professional sportsmen. They had wonderful training and medical facilities, backed by a huge staff rewarded for success. They trained by a different method, extensive not intensive, training with a higher aerobic threshold which, by luck, was better suited to the headwind blowing down the rowing course in Montreal on 27 July 1976.

I did not think of them as cheats for taking the drugs. That issue was buried among all the other perceived advantages they had. It seems extraordinary now to my 45-year- old persona that, at the time, I envied them their political and economic system as it valued sport so much more highly. And if I was prepared to exhaust myself to the core, daily, to beat them, and to make all the other sacrifices, I could not grudge them something that allowed their coaches to turn the screw even harder?

When Pat Sweeney, the coxswain of the British eight, called for a big 'push' as we went through the half-way mark and we took a length from the 1972 champions New Zealand in 15 strokes, and moved away from East Germany to lead them by two- thirds of a length, I thought the supreme moment of my life had come. We had to keep going for less than 1,000 metres and the world was ours.

But 800 metres later the cries died in Sweeney's throat, the boat dragged to one side and the East Germans were through. We had lost. But I never thought about the steroids. We had endured. They had endured. They were better on the day, and all I could think about (and still 18 years later think about) were our deficiencies, our failures. Not their advantages.

If I had blamed them or labelled them cheats, I would have to remember the times I had talked to my own coach, tempting him to prescribe something to make life easier or faster. And the times he had patiently explained that, because he knew athletes would do anything for speed it was vital that the coaches, who had a longer view, stayed in charge.

Today's drug scandals will shrivel to insignificance when the next generation of psychologically-induced boosters rips up the record books and the fingers start to wag. How on earth will they police that?

(Photograph omitted)