Thomas Sutcliffe: So what's wrong with athletes taking drugs?

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The Independent Online

I was pleased to see that after 113 races and a great deal of patriotic boosterism, Jenson Button has finally claimed a Grand Prix victory - partly for the entirely frivolous reason that his name makes him sound like the hero of children's storybook (I find myself visualising a teddy in flame-retardant coveralls). Who would not want the cosily British Button to prevail over the Tuetonic throat-clearing of Schumacher or the Iberian machismo of Barrichello?

Button also gratifyingly made no bones about the odd nature of Grand Prix triumph - the image of which is one man on a podium but the reality of which is a small army of engineers and tacticians, itself backed by a larger army of tyre-specialists, gear-box boffins and aerodynamics geeks. Indeed Button had special words of praise for his pit-team - the speed at which a tyre can be changed being an integral part of this particular sport. So, is it the car or the man or the team who wins the race? Well you can't really say - and nobody appears to get too worked up about the ambiguous interface between artificially acquired excellence and the organic kind. How could you, in a sport in which laboratory breakthroughs are so indispensable?

It's not at all the same in athletics, obviously, and Button's victory - openly celebrated as an amalgam of human skill and technological edge - made for an interesting contrast with the continuing drugs scandals in the world of athletics and cycling. It looks as if the American winner of the Tour de France, Floyd Landis, will be stripped of his title after twice testing positive for testosterone, and the weekend also bought news that the sprinter Christine Ohuruogo had been suspended from the British team after missing three out-of-competition drugs tests.

Clearly we are still some way off the time when a happy medallist will flop into the interview chair after an event and say "The guys in Pharmaceuticals did a terrific job. We've been thrilled with the new tetrahydrogestrinone-adrenaline mix. And I couldn't have done it without my surgery team - the third lung is really bedding in well."

Why not though? It can't surely be because of a concern for the wellbeing of athletes. We happily accept that champions will sacrifice their childhood and their relationships for sporting supremacy. It's also well understood that the intensity of their training may require them to surrender their fertility when young and their agility when old and retired. Indeed the degree of their suffering on the road to victory is often part of their heroic patina - the very reason we are asked to admire them.

And the argument that drug-enhanced performances render competition unfair has always seemed to me completely perverse - since sport is actually a celebration of the arbitrary unfairness of genetics - as anyone who's ever been picked last for a playground kick-around can testify. How come he got the ball sense and I didn't?

What those who piously denounce drugs in sport really mean is that some kinds of unfairness are OK and others aren't. A tennis player who can afford an expensive, performance-transforming coach is seen as single-minded and dedicated, while one who opts to pop a pill is a cheat. Which is why athletes who want to escape censure and ignominy would be wise to stick to the most effective drug of all - cash. Nobody tests for that, and you're allowed to use as much as you can get your hands on.

The biggest attraction on the Fringe

I'm heading for the Edinburgh Festival today, and leafing through the Fringe Guide - 250 pages of frantically competing superlatives - I begin to get the itchy allergic reaction to hype it always induces. Can there really be that many comedy geniuses in existence? And do I really want to be voiding from both extremities, as blurbs along the lines of "I laughed till I cried/ puked/shat myself" seem to suggest will be unavoidable? I am soothed by one thought - the prospect of Ron Mueck's retrospective at the National Gallery of Scotland, which includes two new works - In Bed, a vast woman lying in a giant bed, and A Girl, above, a five-metre long sculpture of a newborn child. This, I know, is going to be "huge" - and for once that isn't a boast, just a statement of the obvious.

* With Panorama due to return to prime time next year, devotees of serious current affairs will be apprehensive about compromise. They can't have been reassured by Andy Davies' report the other night on the British water companies - in the course of which he travelled to the German headquarters of Thames Water's corporate owners with a large tanker - ostensibly to ask for a few extra litres for London's beleaguered gardeners. "There are some legitimate questions to ask here ..." he said, shortly before pushing through the front door - in classic Michael Moore style - to demand that the CEO come down to be doorstepped. He should have added "... and I've successfully guaranteed that I won't be able to put them." If this kind of silly stunt is the price of a mainstream slot, it would be better if Panorama was moved to midnight.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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