(The following article is one I mostly completed last year but haven’t gotten around to posting until now… if there are any discrepancies in the context, that’ll be why. Still, I wanted to publish it here in case anyone finds interest in reading it. One can only hope.)
In 2016 we saw what was branded as another ‘summer of sport’, with Euro 2016 in June-July followed by the Brazil Olympics throughout August. With Russian athletes almost universally banned (at least until said ban was, to some extent, overturned on appeal) from this year’s Olympic Games due to alleged state-sponsored doping, and with numerous other instances of athletes in sports like tennis and MMA (mixed martial arts) recently caught using banned substances, the issue of performance enhancing drugs has never been more prevalent than it is now.
That’s not because more people are ‘cheating’ now than athletes of the past. On the contrary, I believe with the more stringent testing available today, the amount of athletes trying to manipulate the system has fallen. Yet at the same time competition has never been higher, with multi-million dollar sponsorship available for the best, most successful athletes, and without a doubt, as testing methods improve, so too do the range of drugs available that can slip through the system. It is a constant battle for testing methods to keep up with PED’s on the market.
I figured I would use this space to offer my thoughts on this controversial issue of performance enhancers. That’s what they are; my thoughts and nothing more. I don’t intend it to be a conclusive, in-depth article, but if what I write can help others think more critically about a certain topic, I can’t help but do it.
For me personally, the topic became prevalent again recently when one of my favourite athletes, Brock Lesnar, tested positive for a banned substance while training for, and on the night of, his UFC fight with Mark Hunt on July 9th. But this is not something I write as a ‘fan’ of someone or because I want to defend anyone who breaks the rules. Rather, it’s that I want others, people like you and I, to understand that this issue isn’t as cut and dry as most seem to think. It’s not always – if ever – a black and white divide between ‘cheating’ and being totally ‘clean’. Let’s talk about the reasons why.
As obvious as this may sound, there are many different forms and variations of performance enhancers out there. It’s not too dissimilar from the range of vitamins and supplements available; the line is drawn when the effect of a certain substance is deemed to give an unfair advantage over those who don’t take it. Whereas I think the line should instead be drawn with substances that endanger an athlete’s long-term health.
But that doesn’t mean I’m in favour of unfair advantages; quite the opposite. In simple terms, I think athletes should be given a list of legal substances they can use by their allocated governing bodies. These substances would be tested and approved beforehand, to ensure they aren’t a danger to the health of an athlete. Said substances would be available to use as each athlete sees fit.
Granted, this isn’t too different from what happens currently: athletes are given a list of ‘banned’ substances, and things are added to or removed from this list dependent upon how much of an advantage they give in terms of performance enhancement. But the policy on this is generally zero tolerance on anything that is seen to give said advantage. I think this leaves room for abuse by athletes who have the resources to ‘slip through the gap’ as such with the latest designer drugs – who would not be motivated to take such a risk if there were allocated drugs available to use for each athlete rather than confined strictly to the banned list.
This isn’t me trying to make excuses for those who break the rules. Think of it more as an argument for those who don’t; those who end up at a natural disadvantage just for sticking to their principles, for reasons they’ve had drilled into them – that all PED’s are wrong – and a way of removing the advantage given to those who simply have greater resources at their disposal.
It’s also an argument in favour of the integrity and enjoyment level of sport itself. The larger-than-life athletes of the past and present that people know and love, who’ve inspired millions with their feats, may not have been who they became were it not for performance enhancers. Of course people may feel aghast at even the suggestion their heroes would do such a thing, but how can you be sure they didn’t, aside from wishful thinking and their carefully constructed public perception?
If rules around performance enhancers continue to become more stringent – unnecessarily in many cases – sporting heroes of the future likely won’t be seen in the same light. The general aesthetic value and marketability of sport will inevitably go down. My argument is for the integrity of sport and evenly balanced competition across the board, not against it. We need more openness, better transparency, and most importantly, more easily accessible information on the PED’s we’re talking about, for the benefit not only of the public, but also the athletes who need to be aware of what they’re taking. You may think it obvious that they would naturally know what they put in their bodies and what exactly those things do, but bear in mind most top athletes have specialists taking care of this stuff for them; specialists whose success is tied directly to the sporting success and aesthetic value of their athlete.
These drugs have many different properties. They all affect your body differently. That effect often depends not only on the drug itself but on the type of athlete taking them and the sport in which they compete. Regulating bodies are still behind the game on this, but they know enough now to be able to offer some more flexibility that would perhaps help discourage those who abuse the system as it is.
Erythropoietin (EPO) is often seen as one of the more egregious examples of a PED by those who understand what it does. Many people will have first heard of it when Lance Armstrong was finally popped (after a long and generally convincing insistence of denial) by USADA back in 2012 for his use of it following a drawn-out saga lasting almost since Armstrong’s first Tour de France win in 1999. This was the highest profile case of our time, or at least at the time in 2012 (as there have been several other high profile doping cases since); as a result it has helped teach people some of the differences in PED’s and what they do. It also illuminated the unique position there is – and still remains – between the use of drugs in sport, and the drug tests used to catch these substances. For years people suspected Armstrong of some kind of cheating, yet he feigned innocence for as long as the authorities were unable to prove it, and those who supported him were always able to lean back on that until the curtain fell.
Now this indirectly leads us on to another brief point I want to make, and this may be the most pertinent one: PED’s are not magic pills. Sounds obvious enough, but it’s something the uninitiated seem to struggle with. Taking them does not suddenly give an athlete a free route into a final or mean they don’t need to put in hundreds of hours at the gym. Taking a few steroids doesn’t suddenly give a bodybuilder his toned physique or the ability to lift monumental weights.
The clue is in the name: they enhance what’s already there. If an athlete does not have the talent to begin with, or doesn’t want to bust their ass in training every day, then whatever PED’s they try taking, quite frankly, won’t have any more effect on their overall performance than a cheeseburger would. I’ve heard people say that athletes take performance enhancers because they’re sitting on their ass all day and can’t be bothered working out in the gym; please go and do some much-needed research if you think that way.
They don’t make you a superstar, they can’t give you talent; but they can help an athlete with talent become a superstar.
You may have a different opinion on all of this, and your opinion may be justified. As I always say, that’s fair enough. We should be having more conversations about this topic in general, whatever side of the fence you may fall on. As I’ve said, I’m not in favour of any athlete breaking the rules – if they do so without justification or reasoning, they should rightly be punished – I just think maybe those rules should be examined and questioned a little more. In most other areas that would be seen as healthy, but it seems in this area people get touchy about it.