The world of Chariots of Fire is far from Atlanta, where no healthy strapping young men will tear off their shirts and run like the wind for fun. Money, sponsorship and a desperate need for gold drives the athletes on to achieve the previously impossible. But cheating is now so widespread that you can hardly pick up the telephone and talk to anyone in the athletics world who does not think that drugs are widely used. Money, nationalism and protecting the Olympic reputation count for more than fair play.
It is widely acknowledged (in private) that drug-testing is a sham, catching only the inept. The tests do not detect the drug EPO or blood replacement, both of which increase red blood corpuscles to hold more oxygen - at the risk of thrombosis. Nor can they detect muscle-building growth hormones. Panorama last night unearthed a 1984 Olympic scandal in which nine finalists tested positive, but mysteriously, the test results were shredded - no one could say how or why. Cheating is endemic because exposure would send sponsors fleeing to other sports. One sports doctor said to me: "Well, what would you do with the old world records, won by people on drugs? You would have to start all over again."
Sports doctors will do everything legal to enhance performance, even though over-trained athletes may later be prone to crippling osteoarthritis. Women gymnasts are in danger of osteoporosis. Weightlifters risk their hearts. There is little research into long-term effects because no one wants to know. What is the sports doctors' moral duty? Sixty East German women athletes are suing their trainers for damage done in the mid-1970s. Perhaps the result of that case will make the athletics world jump.
If these were animals, the vets would have stepped in long ago to forbid some practices. Take the Tour de France, three weeks of daily extreme exertion. Steven Downes, co-author of Running Scared - How Athletics Lost its Innocence, says some competitors told him that it is virtually impossible without drugs, often amphetamines - speeding on speed. What we are producing is not human perfection, but human freakishness, doped- up circus acts, not athletes.
The most popular Olympic event, with world-wide television audiences, is women's gymnastics - those enchanting elfins flying through the air like rubber-spined butterflies. But in a new book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, the American sports writer Joan Ryan exposes another story behind the scenes. Some US parents sign away their six-year-old girls into the guardianship of coaches who bully them into anorexia and bulimia, while pumping them full of diuretics and laxatives. Overtraining at 30 hours a week, twice what is safe for children, their growth is stunted, puberty delayed and their bones weakened for life. They pop painkillers like Smarties to keep going, despite stress fractures - in Seoul one performed with 22 spinal fractures. One died of anorexia while Ryan was writing. Suicide attempts are common among the failures.
This legalised child abuse dates from 1972, when tiny Olga Korbut leapt a magical back-flip on the four-inch beam. Suddenly women with hips and breasts were out and nymphs were in. Judges mark for body shape as well as acrobatic feats - and the ideal is now as natural as Chinese bound feet. The US women's team in 1992 averaged just 4ft 9in, weighing 83 lbs - the bodies of 10-year-olds. That was six and a half inches shorter and 23lbs lighter than the US team in 1976.
Interestingly, when East German women athletes' gender was questioned as too masculine there was uproar and they were given sex tests. But the de-sexing of these girls provokes no such outcry - quite the contrary. The child-woman has always been a popular nymphet image - rendering women safe, unthreatening and biddable. It reveals an uncomfortably widespread paedophile fantasy - one that women collude with as they strive painfully to starve their bodies into Peter Pan shapes.
The case of the child gymnasts and skaters is exceptional because they are below the age of consent, lacking any of the legal protection of child performers. But even for adults, the notion of consent is difficult. The inducements in glamorous sports are extreme, the pressure intense. Some athletes will always be prepared to abuse themselves. It is not just damaging to them but to the millions striving to emulate them.
So, when women gymnasts cartwheel onto the screen, a collective spasm of revulsion (as there would be at the spectacle of emaciated performing animals) would be more in order than oohing and aahing at the pretty little things. Ditto for the titanic discus-throwers and weightlifters, waifer- thin runners or, for that matter, lop-sided tennis players with right arms and shoulders so over-developed they have to have their right sleeves recut to fit. They are not perfection - but freaks. Human perfection resides in the infinite variety of the rest of us, in myriad shapes and frames and not in the tyranny of body fascism.Reuse content