Drugs In Sport: No time for amnesty in war on drugs

The International Olympic Committee has a duty to protect athletes from self-inflicted damage in pursuit of success

Richard Williams
Saturday 12 December 1998 01:02

IT IS not often you get the chance to see the effect of drugs on sport, as opposed to merely suspecting you've seen it, or having the suspicion confirmed by the report of a positive drug test a few months later. But it does happen.

One morning in 1993, on the warm-up track behind the Neckarstadion in Stuttgart, one of the world's best sprint relay squads were practising their baton changes in readiness for the final of the world championships. For those standing next to the barrier around the perimeter of the track, their routines created a phenomenal impression of power and purpose. But that was nothing compared to the effect when one of the runners went berserk.

In a sort of psychic explosion for which there was no warning or evident explanation, the athlete tried to kill one of his coaches. Well, that's what he said he was trying to do, as he was pulled away from the bemused coach by his team-mates, kicking and screaming until he was gradually subdued and led away.

What had happened to this man was steroid rage, the outburst of irrational violence that is one of the potential side-effects of the banned muscle- building chemical. Five years after Ben Johnson's historic disgrace in Seoul, here was evidence that the same kind of cheating had not gone away. And now, a further five years later, that athlete is a forgotten man, long since returned to the obscurity from which he had suddenly emerged.

The findings of the inquiry published in these pages this week will have dismayed many of those who attend sports events or watch them on the television in the expectation of seeing genuine human achievements conducted on a level playing field. What are they to make of the information that more than half of the elite athletes of all disciplines who responded to The Independent's questionnaire admitted to having taken creatine, the dietary supplement marketed as a legal alternative to anabolic steroids, and whose long-term effects are entirely unknown?

The individual responses were sometimes shattering in their candour and occasionally poignant in their distorted logic. "I feel that everyone has their true potential," a 22-year-old weightlifter wrote, "and that it takes a vast amount of training to reach it. All this training has to be done in about a 15-year period, ie until your early thirties. Without steroids you may be unable to cope with the required training or you will not have done enough training before you reach an age where you are physically in decline. It is therefore possible that you will never reach your true potential without the use of steroids.''

It is surely vital that these findings, and any others of a similar kind, are seen against against the background of society as a whole. We live in a drug society. The texture and rhythms of life in contemporary Britain are conditioned by drug use, in all its varieties and moral shadings. And its financial importance is not confined to a producing nation such as Colombia. Who is to say that, in post-industrial Britain, the hidden economy of drug business does not provide, one way or another, a significant financial underpinning of society?

Sport exists in society, and cannot help but mirror its symptoms. To take the most obvious example, both football's hooligan phenomenon and its current mega-prosperity were outgrowths not of the game itself but of developments in wider society. Similarly, drug use among sportsmen and women is a by-product of the greater general acceptance of the existence of drugs - whether to enhance performance or pleasure - as well as of the increasing emphasis placed on success.

To be generous, this must be what Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the International Olympic Committee, had in mind when he suggested, earlier this year, that the idea of banning performance-enhancing drugs was out of date in a society which devotes so much of its resources to artificial personal enhancement of many kinds, from cosmetic surgery to assertiveness training. Samaranch advanced the notion that proscription should be applied only to substances which actually damage the health of the athletes.

For daring to think the unthinkable, and for thinking it aloud, the president deserves the sporting community's gratitude. In a changing world, such attitudes needs constant re-examination - but always against a set of the sort of fundamental principles without which no sport (with the possible exception of Formula One) could exist.

Yet, after considering the idea of a free-for-all, the conclusion must be that a mature society should take responsibility for its members. There may well be, as was alleged this week, 60,000 steroid-users in London alone, largely as a result of the growth of "gym culture", but that is no reason for the sports authorities to throw up their hands and abandon the fight to ensure that anyone who refuses to take drugs is not placed at an immediate disadvantage. To expect drug-testing programmes to expand in proportion to every other quantifiable off-track sporting statistic - from viewing figures to prize money - is nothing more than logic and common sense.

This is a drug society, certainly, but also - thanks to the simultaneous explosions of multinational corporate greed and of worldwide multi-media - a money society and a fame society. Which is why the words of Craig Reedie, one of Britain's two representatives on the IOC, on the subject of the proposed Olympic anti-doping project sounded as unrealistic as they were well-intentioned. "We believe that the programme is to the benefit of many," he told this newspaper a few days ago. "Sponsors, sports goods manufacturers, the pharmaceutical industry - all have an interest in sport being clean."

Oh, really? Sponsors, sports goods manufacturers and the pharmaceutical industry are in business, and business in the modern world has a single purpose: to satisfy shareholders by the constant increase of profits. It would be extremely naive to believe that those organisations who stand to profit from sport are interested in healthy bodies in healthy minds, or even in level playing fields. Whether their product is cigarettes, training shoes or dietary supplements, their only concern is the bottom line at the end of the financial year. The possible benefit of a morally healthy sport lies far beyond their profit-horizon. And if sport is generating what might appear to be unhealthy controversies, then their marketing departments are streetwise enough to incorporate such incidents into their advertising strategies. They are, at best, morally neutral and should be treated as such.

It's just about possible to imagine, say, the Wellcome Foundation seeing a commercial advantage in putting up the $25m necessary to fund the worldwide drug-testing scheme that Reedie will present for the approval of the IOC's executive committee in February. But such a project does not exist for their benefit. It is for the benefit of athletes like the weightlifter who wrote to The Independent this week, young men and women who cannot be expected to see for themselves the benefit of abstaining from practices that would improve their performance but might also endanger the life that waits beyond the finishing line.

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