Pass the pills, Greg, I have a piece to write

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The Independent Online

OK, it's time for me to come clean: this column is enhanced by supplements. Before sitting down to write, I swallow handfuls of vitamins and minerals, and that's on top of the couple of glasses of wine I sometimes take the evening before. As for writing a novel, I can barely produce a sentence without mega-doses of cod liver oil (for the brain, you know) and I just hope, now I've made this startling confession, that other authors will admit their reliance on supplements to improve their performance. Thank God there isn't an authors' equivalent of the World Anti-Doping Agency, the organisation that regulates drug use in Olympic sports, which could send inspectors to my house unannounced and demand a blood or urine sample.

OK, it's time for me to come clean: this column is enhanced by supplements. Before sitting down to write, I swallow handfuls of vitamins and minerals, and that's on top of the couple of glasses of wine I sometimes take the evening before. As for writing a novel, I can barely produce a sentence without mega-doses of cod liver oil (for the brain, you know) and I just hope, now I've made this startling confession, that other authors will admit their reliance on supplements to improve their performance. Thank God there isn't an authors' equivalent of the World Anti-Doping Agency, the organisation that regulates drug use in Olympic sports, which could send inspectors to my house unannounced and demand a blood or urine sample.

Officials of this pious-sounding body are peeved with Greg Rusedski, the country's second-ranked tennis player, after he admitted that he had tested positive for the performance-enhancing substance nandrolone. Rusedski could face a two-year ban following the random test, even though he denies taking performance-enhancing drugs and it is accepted that the body naturally produces small amounts of nandrolone. It is also contained in many supplements produced for use by athletes, 94 of which turned out to contain banned anabolic steroids - banned by the various regulatory bodies, that is - when examined by a laboratory in Cologne.

It is not as if the allegations involve cocaine or any other illegal drug, yet news that Rusedski had failed the test was near the top of last week's news bulletins. Hearing a radio report that began with a sombre announcement that the player had "tested positive" for something or other, I assumed for a split second that the poor man was infected with HIV. This is not as fanciful as it sounds, for the former Wimbledon champion, Arthur Ashe, died prematurely after being infected with the virus during a blood transfusion. In fact Rusedski, who was playing in Adelaide last week, is perfectly healthy, apart from a slight cold. But the paranoid atmosphere that pervades tennis was confirmed by his off-the-cuff remark that he had to be careful about taking medication in case any of the ingredients affected a drugs test.

When athletes are terrified of taking over-the-counter medication in case it wrecks their careers, something has gone seriously awry with professional sport. This new form of temperance is just as dour as the 19th-century campaign against alcohol, and its supporters remind me of Victorian wives who sniffed their husbands' breath for signs of the evil potion. Perhaps they should borrow some of the old temperance slogans, which could be adapted quite easily for the current cause. "Lips that touch steroids shall never touch mine" has a certain ring to it.

As well as being laughably pompous, the campaign against performance-enhancing drugs in sport is based on a fallacy. Professional athletes spend their lives trying to improve their times, serves, goal-scoring capacity or whatever. I am reasonably fit for a writer, a fact I attribute to a great deal of walking and yoga, but I am never going to win the ladies' singles at Wimbledon or represent Britain in the 100 metres. It is not hard to spot the puritan ethic behind this "effort good, supplements bad" approach to sport, or to guess that there is an unconscious element of envy at work among some members of sport's regulatory bodies. They seem unable to resist making punitive pronouncements on young athletes - many of them black, working-class and making lots of money - long before the allegations against them have been considered at a formal hearing.

If athletes are allowed to train to reach exceptional levels of fitness, there is no reason why they shouldn't use performance-enhancing substances as well. Far better to have the whole business out in the open, with sportsmen and women encouraged to be honest about whether they are using steroids and other drugs. Then we would find out how much difference doping really makes, and the public could express its view by making heroes - if it felt so inclined - of the squeaky-clean individuals it is assumed to prefer. Excuse me now, but it's time to take my super-strength multi-vitamins with soya extracts and evening primrose oil.

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