A drug called winning: It's a habit they can't break. Peter Corrigan on sporting heroes and villains

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The Independent Online
SPORT promotes itself as a healthy, pure activity. The Olympic ideal, a jolly good sport, the playing fields of Eton - the image that sport likes to reflect to the world resonates through our language. To many nations - think of baseball in America, cricket in England or the West Indies, football in Brazil, rugby union in New Zealand or South Africa, athletics and gymnastics in the former Soviet Union - sport with all its rules and standards and rituals is part of the national identity. And sport is where we expect to see reflected what we most like about ourselves: our discipline, our grace and elegance, our physical fitness, our exuberance, teamwork, toughness.

That is why allegations of cheating in sport create special shock, whether they involve Diego Maradona taking drugs during the World Cup or Boris Becker receiving medical treatment during a match at Wimbledon. You don't get many musicians banned for drug abuse. These examples from last week carry extra impact because of the quality of those involved. Maradona and Becker are not to be classed among the low achievers, bending the rules to gain ground on rivals of superior natural ability, but among the stars whose place in the hall of fame is already guaranteed.

These are only the latest episodes in a dismal succession. Pakistan's former cricket captain Imran Khan, a player of immense stature in the game, revealed in his biography that he used to lift the seam with a bottle top so that the ball would swing more. It is an illegal practice, we learnt, at which many a big-name bowler was adept. Also revealed to us has been the match-fixing of Marseille which has scandalised French football. Even golf, acknowledged as the game of self- regulating purity, has had to endure suggestions - from Seve Ballesteros's coach, no less - that top players have been taking the banned drugs called beta-blockers to calm them when faced with nerve-wracking putts.

In the six years since Ben Johnson, the daddy of all the disgraced, was stripped of his gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul after failing a drug test, we have had a succession of shameful disclosures; not to mention a steady drip of tainted samples entering the testing laboratories.

Often the sporting bodies concerned suffer as much as the individuals. Two of the most famous drugs cases involve the German runner Katrin Krabbe and the American 400 metres man Butch Reynolds; they are still rumbling on a few years later with the athletes still disputing their guilt. Reynolds won a multi-million dollar law suit as a result of his fight against the authorities.

The drug abusers get the harshest punishments: Maradona faces a lifetime ban for abusing his own body, yet rugby players are suspended for a few matches (or not at all) for stamping on their opponents. Drug abuse can be classed as just another way of gaining an unfair advantage over your opponent. Cheating is so endemic to sport that we hardly notice it: sprinters try to beat the starter's gun, footballers feign injury after a tackle (the art is perfected in the World Cup), batsmen rub their arms after snicking a catch, rugby players commit all manner of offences in scrums, rucks and line- outs in the hope that the referee is unsighted.

But why do those, such as Maradona, who are already supreme try to gain further advantage? One explanation is that reaching the top requires a surfeit of appetite, an overwhelming will to win. That does not always fade once the pinnacle has been achieved. But repeating the achievement, as powers decline, may require something more.

The sadness is that these attempts to remain at the top may diminish the past. People not familiar with football might imagine that Maradona's eminence in the game is partly due to drugs. Maradona is arguably the greatest player the world has ever seen and if there was a drug that could make others play like him we'd all be down the chemist first thing in the morning. But the career his brilliance earned him became so blemished by off-field misbehaviour it couldn't be sustained and since 1991 he has been sliding. Among his many excesses has been a drug dependency which earned him a 15-month ban for taking cocaine.

How much his attempted comeback at this World Cup has been assisted by drugs is difficult to assess. Not a lot, I suspect. He was probably obeying an addiction more than seeking a new benefit. His chances of avoiding detection were fairly low, given his background, but he was ready to take any gamble to achieve all there was left for him - rehabilitation in his country's colours and a last hurrah for his spent career.

Becker's transgressions at Wimbledon seem, to most eyes, in a different league to Maradona's in the World Cup. The authorities took the same view: a dollars 1,000 fine, not a banishment from the tournament. But his actions belong to a similar yearning for past glories. A little genteel gamesmanship has long been a part of Wimbledon but Becker pushed his luck to limits that shocked even John McEnroe who, while commentating for American television, protested that the German should be thrown out of the tournament.

In his third round match against Javier Frana, Becker offended the regulations by receiving medical treatment when he left the court, ostensibly to visit the lavatory. In his next match, against Andrei Medvedev, he employed delaying tactics at crucial stages of the match, often interrupting play to ask for a towel which he used to no apparent purpose. Medvedev complained bitterly about Becker's tactics as did the German's next opponent, Christian Bergstrom, who claimed he continually broke his concentration.

Although he could feel the crowd's objection building up until it was positively antagonistic in Friday's semi-final, Becker was not deflected. He wouldn't be the first to thrive on the adrenalin produced under such conditions. Adrenalin, of course, is one drug that is permissible.

Becker was taking advantages that cannot be measured in the laboratory, and the governing bodies of sport vary in their determination to enforce not just the rules but also the spirit of the rules. They pursue drug abuse, however, with special ruthlessness. This might be more effective if it was a little more wisely directed. Considering that society is making little headway in its battle against drugs it is not surprising that sport is having much more success in retribution than prevention.

While one wouldn't suggest that decriminalisation of certain kinds of drug use, which is gathering support as a remedy, would work in sport, a more enlightened approach would help. Nobody really knows to what extent anabolic steroids helped Ben Johnson to become the fastest man in the world in 1988. There has been no scientific attempt to find out. Consequently, steroids have a reputation among the young that they may not deserve.

There may be many young footballers or, indeed, other sportsmen and women, who believe that ephedrine and other related substances can make them perform better. It is a dangerous assumption to allow to go unchallenged. There is no real evidence the drugs did anything for Maradona - some medical experts consider they might be capable of the opposite - and Fifa, the controlling body of world football, might be better employed mounting an investigation that might explode the drug's reputation rather than concentrating their efforts on the further humiliation of a fallen star.

Even if drugs had never been created, the appetite for gaining an unfair edge over your opponent would still take many forms. You might have met it during a family game of Scrabble, or a bout of beach cricket. If the greatest players are prepared to go to any length to stretch the rules in their favour, a selection of the worst players are not likely to hold back. It is a debatable point whether this unsavoury desire exists more in ordinary life than it does in sport. Does a politician take more liberties with the rules than a footballer? Can a City tycoon show a tennis player a few things about intimidation and illegal activity?

(Photograph omitted)

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