Joe Public would fail a drugs test, too

Almost everyone is on something that would get an Olympic athlete banned, says Charles Arthur
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The Independent Online
Even though it's not in the Radio Times schedule for the Olympics, we know that there is one event that is guaranteed plenty of TV exposure: the naming of the first athlete to be sent home after testing positive for drugs - or, more accurately, "banned substances".

Those athletes who do test positive - such as Andrew Davies and Andrew Saxton, the Welsh weightlifters sent home from Barcelona in 1992 - can expect to return home to a hail of abuse. "Pariahs of sport", said the then chairman of the Sports Council for Wales; "horrifying", said the then Minister for Sport, Robert Keys.

When (and it almost certainly is when) it happens this time, let us hope that none of the strong language comes from any of the 14 male MPs and members of the House of Lords who, we hear, have been taking artificial testosterone shots in order, as one prescribing doctor, Malcolm Carruthers, puts it, to "rev the engine and take the handbrake off". Apparently, our rulers had been finding the pressures of maintaining their seats and the long hours at the House too telling, and discovered that they needed something extra to keep them going.

And we can be sure, can't we, that no female representative taking hormone- replacement therapy (HRT) to artificially fend off the effects of ageing will be first to the media barricades to condemn somebody for taking an artificial performance enhancer.

But - on the principle that it should be those without sin who cast the first stone - who is really in a position to lob the first chunk of abuse? Although we choose largely to ignore it, the fact is that Olympic (or aspiring) athletes stand apart from the rest of society not only for their abilities. The rest of us now comprise a society that depends so deeply on drugs to give us just that little bit extra to get us through the day that perhaps not a single one of us could reasonably expect to make the grade if we, like those athletes, were subjected to random urine testing.

Leave aside testosterone and HRT: how many people do you know who suffer from asthma and have to use an inhaler regularly? Or who take hay- fever tablets or remedies so that they can work or drive or go for a walk without their eyes and nose streaming? Sorry, that would test positive under the Olympic rules.

Perhaps you're one of the two million people on Prozac - now prescribed to many young mothers, who find the first five years of their children's lives exhausting. Or maybe you are on some other anti-depressant. Not for nothing was Valium so well known as "mother's little helper". Or are you one of the million people taking Ecstasy regularly, to give you that pep to get through a long night? Or one of the uncounted millions smoking cannabis to relax after an infuriating day at work? Perhaps you're about to start a long drive home after a tiring day. Why not pop one of those concentrated caffeine tablets to give you an amphetamine lift without the illegality? You know, of course, that all of those would get you banned from amateur sports.

Maybe you can pass all those tests - you treat your body is a temple, or nearly. But you want to have a drink after work, or over a business lunch to seal that contract? Yes, that's on the IOC's list, too (which primly states: "Tests may be conducted for ethanol. The results may lead to sanctions"). You'll all have to go to the back of the queue of people lining up to be rude about so-called "disgraced" athletes.

Perhaps it's no accident that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) first introduced its list of "banned substances" in 1967, when drugs were really starting to permeate into everyday Western culture. Now there's barely a single niche in our lives that they haven't touched. In May, German medical students were revealed to have found a means of overcoming the stress of exams: a beta-blocker (which steadies the heart rhythms) and a Valium before the test.

If the drug is available, we'll find a way to use it. Stimulants to cope with the pressures of down-sized offices, narcotics to escape the pressures of city life, anti-depressants to let us fit in where otherwise we'd be kicking and punching people off the pavement. Let's accept it, despite what Nancy Reagan might have hoped for, we all long ago just said "yes".

Not only that, we are actively searching for new ways to get a leg up here and there. Maybe you haven't heard about the "memory pill"? (Or maybe you have heard, but forgot?) A team of New York scientists this week announced that they are trying to pinpoint the proteins required in the brain to turn short-term memories into long-term ones. Known as CREB1 and 2, they could give us all splendid retention abilities - which might, who knows, halve the overall amount of pill-popping by German medical students, among others.

But where do all these advances, which take the rest of us forward into a world where we can manipulate our moods and our memory at will, leave athletes? Rather than being the cream of our society, they are left somewhere outside it. They are living in a world where they have to dodge the drugs that lie in wait for them at every turn, in all those remedies and pick- me-ups. It is as challenging as being a matador who evades a herd of raging bulls. One wrong move, and the testers will gore you.

Bearing that in mind, it's clear that the athletes who test positive don't deserve our scorn. They have already submitted to an existence which is wholly outside that which the rest of us can imagine. Nowadays, to be an Olympic athlete takes not just talent and training, but also the mental strength to live like an ascetic. The drugs-takers aren't outcasts, except from the strange world of athletics. They're not pariahs; they're just like all the rest of us. And we should welcome them back into the fold, not scorn them for leaving an artificial existence outside our own. Anything else is just hypocrisy.

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