On PED’s in sport.

(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.

Brock Lesnar tested positive for a banned substance after having been granted a 3 month exemption by USADA before his big fight.
Brock Lesnar tested positive for a banned substance after having been granted a 3 month exemption by USADA before his big fight.

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.

For the duration of the peak years of his career, Lance Armstrong duped the public, denying PED use despite accusations from those who knew what they were looking for.
For the duration of the peak years of his career, Lance Armstrong duped the public, denying PED use amidst accusations from those who knew the signs.

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.


Some thoughts on WrestleMania 31.

Seth Rollins pic 1.

It’s been 12 years since my favourite WrestleMania (XIX, in 2003), and 10 since I stopped taking any more than a passing interest in what was going on in WWE. The occasions when I have checked in, I found there’s been one constant during most of that time: John Cena as the hero champion, whose status has seemingly only begun to be dialled back following Summerslam‘s main event last year. With the conclusion of WrestleMania 31 last Sunday (the first I’ve watched live in 5 years), I wonder whether now might be the time to think about investing again.

Of course times have changed quite considerably in those 12 years, but this year’s event did at least have one thing in common with my favourite wrestling show: Brock Lesnar in the main title match, and while Roman Reigns is certainly no Kurt Angle, he showed on Sunday that he does at least have potential of rising to main event status. Though he had to work pretty hard to earn the respect of any fans, and that work is clearly not yet done – this company seems to be learning slowly that their audience can more easily pick up the scent of manufactured superstars after ten years of having Cena forcibly pushed down their throats.

Needless to say, having Reigns win would have been a mistake, not only for the company’s aim to please their customers but also for his own confidence and development. Nor did they want to keep the title on Lesnar any longer than they had to. In the end the answer was somewhat obvious, and with the benefit of hindsight (which of course turns us all into expert analysts), should have been as predictable as Daniel Bryan’s crowd-pleasing ‘yes’ chants to close the show last year. Keep the crowd guessing; surprise them and make them happy without making it look like you’re caving in to pressure. Had they went with Bryan again, that is what it would have felt like; and you wonder how they would have got out of the cycle of caving every time the crowd chanted ‘yes, yes, yes‘.

Hilarious though it would have been in the short term, for a casual fan like me, it was probably not practical when looking to the company’s future, and seeing Seth Rollins hold the title aloft to finish the show certainly felt like the signal for that: the future. Not, perhaps, in the way Vince McMahon would have initially wanted it – with his newly christened hero Reigns standing tall – but in a way that keeps most of the fans happy while still moving forward. Which, for as long as Cena was in the main event picture, frankly never looked like happening (sorry to keep harking back to him, but it really has been too long).

The match itself was booked as well as it could have been in the circumstances. It was very much a match of two halves, or of three thirds if you include the final twist. With news emerging of Lesnar signing a new contract only a few days before, it would have been crazy to let Reigns beat him cleanly – nor would Lesnar himself have settled for that, I think, bearing in mind the unsavoury way fans have reacted to Reigns’ premature main event push. The man to eventually beat Lesnar next must at least be one who he sees as worthy of it.

So the first half of the match consisted of Lesnar beating down Reigns in a similar fashion to how he squashed Cena at Summerslam – and I briefly wondered, with admitted glee, whether this was going to be the same situation. In the main event of WrestleMania… surely not? And it was not to be like that, as Reigns would take eight suplexes, three F-5’s and still refuse to be beaten. At which point, the suspicion grew that this was to be Reigns’ coronation after all; the new ‘immortal’ hero of the company, coming back and beating the ‘Beast’ against all the odds.

This is exactly what started happening next. Lesnar rushes at Reigns against the ring post; Reigns dodges and Lesnar is literally busted open. I wondered whether that was in the plan, because Lesnar seemed dazed and Paul Heyman, his ‘advocate’, did a great job of selling concern for his client. As he stumbles back in the ring, with Reigns in waiting, fans started holding their breath – they sensed what was coming and didn’t want to consider what the outcome might be.

Reigns mounts his comeback, eventually knocking Lesnar off his feet, and hitting him with multiple spears. Hearts in mouth moments ensue as Reigns comes close to fulfilling what some fans would have thinking was inevitable at this point. But further twists were to come; just as Reigns goes to hit the final blow, Lesnar catches him and gives another f-5; what really should have been, at this point, the end of the match. Lesnar would win, and many fans, while not entirely happy, would go home satisfied that the perceived plan to crown Reigns as champion had not come to fruition…

Seth Rollins, who had lost to Randy Orton earlier in the night, then came out and used his ‘money in the bank’ contract to make the match a triple threat. Even at this point, though, I was reluctant to think they were going to let him walk out champion. Especially when Lesnar recovered to catch Rollins in an f-5… only for Reigns to hit another spear. Lesnar is knocked out of the ring, and Rollins hits his own signature manoeuvre, the ‘curb stomp’, on Reigns… for the three count. What? A clean three count, on the man we all thought was going to walk out the new superhero of the company? One can’t say that part was expected, even if they had somehow predicted the rest of it. The show ends, not with Reigns as the first former member of The Shield to become world champion, but Rollins; a competitor much more popular with fans despite being a ‘heel’.

I thought this was a thoroughly entertaining main event, and quite simply, rather unexpectedly, the best match of the night. Without doubt that was mostly due to Lesnar and Rollins, but Reigns more than played his part, and helped make it a more entertaining experience than had Cena been in there again. This pushed the overall event from simply being ‘good’ to being close to ‘excellent’. Was it one of the best WrestleMania‘s overall? Maybe not (I’m in no position to say), but certainly among the best in those 12 years since my personal favourite. In fact the only part of the night I really didn’t like was (as you should know after reading this far) the Cena match, preceded by a ridiculously patriotic promo that doesn’t belong in this era of wrestling, nor is it applicable to the majority of the worldwide audience that would have been watching this event.

Still, to see Cena win a title at WrestleMania that wasn’t the main one, and to do so in the mid-card, signalled a huge stride forward to me. The overall event honestly felt like a fresh start; you had Bryan and Cena winning the mid-card titles, perhaps in attempts to appease their respective fans, while someone new won the world title for the first time. One would hope at this point that WWE sticks to their plans, but if John Cena has that world title by Summerslam again then I’ll unhappily eat my words.

For now, though, it seems the future is indeed here. And it looks like it could be more entertaining than the present has been.


WWE’s Night of Cena 2014.

When Brock Lesnar emphatically squashed Vince McMahon’s golden boy and 15-time world champion John Cena at Summerslam in August, those wrestling fans who had been forced to endure the latter in WWE main events for the past 10 years felt a great surge of joy and, more importantly, hope for the future.

Here we saw a man who we were supposed to believe worthy of all the success that’s been handed to him, finally feeling the force of any self-respecting wrestling fan over the age of 10, with Lesnar as their chosen advocate. Oh how appropriate an advocate the former UFC fighter was.

I can’t truly count myself in that category, having not watched WWE properly since 2004, only then tuning in for the occasional pay-per-view and, of course, WrestleMania. Though I have noticed one common theme linking each of those WrestleMania’s and most of the pay-per-views in between: a certain John Cena in a world title match or main event. This year’s WrestleMania 30 marked the first in the past ten years in which this wasn’t the case. And is it any coincidence that it was also (arguably) the best of the past decade?

I’m making it sound like there’s a big BUT coming somewhere, aren’t I? Yes, there is, because while Summerslam 2014’s main title match was a refreshing slice of realism for a self-proclaimed ‘sports entertainment’ (note: not ‘wrestling’) company that usually lacks this quality, most people were smart enough to realise that its aftermath would be the true litmus test of WWE’s intentions for the near future.

What that aftermath has shown over the past month, culminating in last Sunday’s Night of Champions pay-per-view, is that Summerslam was nothing more than an emphatic one-off, while the immediate aftermath was an emphatic piss off to those who had been holding out for, finally, something different.

Knowing there was a strong chance heading into this pay-per-view that Cena was going to win the match and walk out with the title once again, I had decided I would only go back and watch it with the benefit of hindsight, IF this course of events didn’t happen. I no longer want to support WWE if they are to continue pushing Cena to the chagrin of their protesting fans.

Needless to say, I have not gone back to watch it at all. This is because, while Lesnar remains champion, Cena did everything except leave with the title, including picking up a win by disqualification that goes down on the record books. Another win for this kayfabe superhero whom the kids still seem to love after ten years of the same thing. That’s all the information I need to make the assessment that this show was ultimately not worth watching, regardless of what else may have happened on the undercard.

That undercard is, unfortunately, endlessly subject to the whims of this man at the top, and therefore overshadowed by him. It would not be so bad if most of the fans actually liked him; yet those that do appear to be in the minority, with Cena continually booed at each city that Raw is aired from each week. But of course, then you must consider the kids, who help pump up merchandise sales by asking their parents for Cena’s newest shirts (which seem to appear almost weekly as WWE’s financial situation continues to decline due to short-sightedness).

Those fans out there who are serious about the sport of wrestling and respect its humble roots, I want you to consider what this means. Continue to nonchalantly pay money for WWE events if you want to keep reassuring them that they can do what they want without listening to their more vocal audience. Be aware though, that your favourite performer, whether be it Lesnar, Bray Wyatt or Daniel Bryan, will ultimately end up bowing to the whims of another rather than handed the chance to be a truly top guy themselves.

For now Cena will continue on as WWE’s main man, regularly appearing in main events even when he’s not in the title picture. For as long as those of us who care enough to want permanent change choose to stay silent and go with the flow over acting out with our voice or our feet, that’s the way it’s going to stay.


*There are little things you can do to support the cause. Check out Bruce Blitz, who watches WWE so that you don’t have to, and posts his weekly Raw reviews on YouTube.


WrestleMania XXX.

...This needs no caption.
…This needs no caption.

There are some people who still denigrate wrestling fans because their ‘sport’, as these people say, is ‘fake’. One has to stop and consider what people mean when they say this. If they mean what we are watching is somehow not happening but is instead an illusion, then we can probably conclude that they would not only be wrong, but slightly crazy. Of course we know that they (more than likely) do not mean this. They mean to say, rather, what we all in fact know: matches are scripted to a predetermined outcome for storytelling purposes. What they perceive to be the embarrassment of ‘fake fighting’ is actually the very reason millions of people worldwide tune in to watch a show like WrestleMania 30.

It is precisely because of this open secret that people can feel betrayed and shocked that a 49 year old semi-retired professional wrestler known as The Undertaker can lose to a younger, stronger and all-round fitter performer at the top of his game. And the reason they cheer for Daniel Bryan despite knowing that he’s only in the main event because they demanded that he be put there as their chosen champion.

WrestleMania 30, held at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans in front of 75,000 people, is as good an example as any that mainstream wrestling knows its place in modern society and relishes in it.

WWE knew going in that this event could be hampered by accusations of predictability, and they handled it simply yet brilliantly with one three-second count. Giving the fans what they wanted with one hand and teaching them on the other that you can’t have everything your own way, they said ‘fine – here’s your champion’ in awarding Bryan his moment of glory while also pulling a stunt that seemingly no-one saw coming.

They ended The Undertaker’s undefeated 21-0 winning streak at this event, with little hint of a warning that it was coming. Predictable? Please; if you had guessed which match WWE scriptwriters would choose for an unpredictable finish, you would hardly have chosen this one. The rug was pulled from under our feet and WWE deserve great credit for it.

Brock Lesnar was the unexpected victor over a man ten years past his prime; this really wouldn't be a shock in any other business.
Brock Lesnar was the unexpected victor over a man ten years past his prime; this really wouldn’t be a shock in any other business.

Ironically as an actual match the bout between Brock Lesnar and Undertaker is one of the poorest of the night. Were it not for its result, no-one would remember this one. Taker struggles to keep up with the already slow pace, and even the commentators acknowledge, along with the rest of the arena, that his career must be coming to an end. The match has little noteworthy action, and were it not for the charismatic Paul Heyman (Lesnar’s agent and personality behind the muscle) being a constant presence at ringside, it would have had no psychology either.

It is when looking at the match this way that the question of whether Brock Lesnar was the right man to end the streak becomes largely irrelevant. Clearly he was the only man to end it, because Undertaker can hardly take much more yearly self-punishment. Lesnar was in the right place at the right time; had it been the John Cena, Roman Reigns or even Daniel Bryan of 2014, it would not have had the same impact as a major heel whom no-one really felt deserved the honour. Also bear in mind that this decision was, in all likelihood, firmly in the hands of Taker himself.

However, putting too much focus on this single match is largely unfair and unjust when compared to some other gems to be found within WrestleMania 30’s 4 hour running time. The opening contest between Daniel Bryan and Triple H is one of the best you will have seen in a long time. I have even heard it said in the past week that this may be one of the greatest matches ever. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it certainly tells the underdog story well, and is a fantastic advert for everything good about modern wrestling; psychology, melodrama and the occasional bit of mat grappling.

Elsewhere, popular stable The Shield won a quick six-man tag team match against the New Age Outlaws and Kane, in what was a clear last minute storyline change heading into WrestleMania. WWE had been teasing a break-up between the three members of The Shield right up until a few weeks before this event, leading some to think they were heading for a triple threat collision.

Instead the team were pushed into a feud with the nearest heels WWE could find – a change that happened to coincide with the change of WrestleMania’s main event into a triple threat match between Bryan, Orton and Batista. Perhaps management wanted to keep things fresh on the card after being forced into a main event that the fans demanded. They did the best they could to salvage the situation, and one can hardly have any complaints over this match considering their opponents. Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins each look like possible future stars in their own right.

Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins make up The Shield.
Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins make up The Shield.

Best moment of the night arguably belonged to Swiss wrestler – and clear future star – Antonio Cesaro, who picked up Big Show to dump him over the top rope in the 30-man Andre the Giant memorial battle royal, in a scripted recreation of Hogan’s famous ‘Andre body slam’ at WrestleMania 3. Similar to the Lesnar-Taker match, this battle royal is all about its climactic winning moment rather than the forgettable bout itself. It is, after all, a battle royal that starts with thirty men in one ring – most of whom you can’t distinguish from one another at first. Initially it feels a little pointless, but the creative use of Kofi Kingston and a genuine surprise winner may just fool you into thinking those forever-lost fifteen minutes were worth it.

This was not the first and only reference to WrestleMania 3 in the course of the night. Hulk Hogan, a more appropriate host for this event than The Rock was for WrestleMania 27, kicked off the night in the ring cutting a presumably sentimental promo filled with catchphrases and thanksgiving. I say presumably because he was soon joined by fellow former stars Stone Cold Steve Austin and, indeed, The Rock. The three of them then proceed to cut a sentimental promo filled with catchphrases, thanksgiving, and telling each other how great they are.

Admittedly, the best thing about this sequence was the mistake Hogan makes during his initial speech – calling the Superdome the Silverdome, which was the venue for WrestleMania 3. It’s a mistake that Stone Cold and Rock play on when they come out, which reminds you of why these guys were so successful in their time; their ability to improvise with developments not in the script and share the joke with the fans. It is this charisma, more than technical abilities or a sculpted physique, that you need to truly make a mark in sports entertainment.

Of the current generation of stars with this extra quality, John Cena first comes to mind (to be honest, there are few others that do). Of course he is not the most popular with fans, but he knows it and plays off of it, and remains one of the genuine good guys despite it. There is little doubt, for me, that Cena’s match with Bray Wyatt simply stole the show at WrestleMania 30.

It’s not that this match was the greatest ever. There was not an overabundance of technical ability on show. But as a spectacle, you could hardly ask for more. From the moment that Bray Wyatt appears on the big screen to announce “New Orleans… We’re here” before a live band performs his entrance theme; the fans buy into this one and are involved throughout the entire match. At one point the camera shows a wide shot of the ring, and you can see the fans swaying around the arena in support of the Wyatt Family and their cultish persona.

The Wyatt Family had the fans fired up for this match.
The Wyatt Family had the fans fired up for this match.

Another spot sees Cena gaining the upper hand, going for his trademark ‘five-knuckle shuffle’, and as he comes off the ropes, Wyatt rises up from the mat in his signature ‘crab walk’ to freak out Cena and provoke another reaction from the fans. I won’t deny it, I love this guy’s creepy gimmick – one of the faces he pulls during the match is like something you’re more likely to see in a Japanese horror movie. A typical, slightly disappointing end to the match is forgivable in the face of the nice story it tells, and most importantly, the chemistry that Cena and Wyatt create with the fans in the arena.

Which leaves one more match I haven’t yet commented on: the main event. The build-up to this match is almost as interesting as the bout itself, due mainly to the fact that it’s one of the few examples where WWE have had to change their original plans at short notice because of fan backlash.

Originally Batista, returning to the company after almost four years, had won the Royal Rumble match in January only a week after arriving, with an ego to match his achievement. Fans didn’t like it; at that event, and indeed in the following weeks, they wanted and expected Daniel Bryan to be the star.

WWE management must have soon realised that having a riot break out in the main event of WrestleMania would not be very good for business, and so they moulded Daniel Bryan into the storyline. To be fair WWE couldn’t have handled the situation, and Bryan’s run to the championship, much better than they did, with the backdrop of the most stubborn wrestling fans in many years.

So the main event was a memorable triple threat match involving Batista, Bryan and the champion, Randy Orton. One magnificent spot of the match sees Batista and Orton team up to put Bryan through the announcer’s table using their combined finishing moves, a Batista Bomb combined with an RKO. Bryan has to be taken out of the match on a stretcher but, playing the typical underdog role, finds a new lease of life and fights back in the match. Triple H comes out to ringside because all of the odds need to be stacked against Bryan in this storyline, who doesn’t have anyone coming out to back him up. Eventually, he manages to get a clean win regardless, making the big bad arrogant Batista submit to his signature ‘Yes’ lock. The fans celebrate and leave happy after experiencing Undertaker’s traumatic (but let’s be honest: very realistic) defeat to Lesnar.

This main event, along with a couple of other matches on the card, was the best WWE has produced in a decade. That may seem high praise, or maybe it’s a damning indictment on how bad the company has been in recent years, but without doubt it owes some of this praise to the fans. I have mentioned them a few times here for good reason; at WrestleMania 30 they were as loud, passionate and involved as you remember them during that near-mythical ‘Attitude Era’ we all like to talk about so much. But hey, it’s still all ‘fake’, right? Well, if this is what fake gives us, wrestling fans probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

9 / 10.