Tag Archive: Training


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.

Southpaw.

Southpaw pic 1.

I’ll admit I had Southpaw down as a possible film of the year contender based solely on the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal, whose choice of projects is always top notch. You can certainly tell what he was going for with this role, though unfortunately Southpaw as a whole isn’t quite up to the extraordinary standards of Gyllenhaal’s recent films.

The hints were there even before release – with Eminem reportedly the original casting choice to play lead character Billy Hope. His mark remains all over the film’s soundtrack (indeed Eminem’s voice is the first you hear), which I didn’t have so much of a problem with. If you’re going to have Eminem involved with your movie, probably best keep it to what he’s most skilled at, and as Southpaw was apparently inspired by the rapper’s personal life (seen as a ‘spiritual successor to 8 Mile’ by screenwriter Kurt Sutter), his involvement is fitting.

Gyllenhaal’s character, Billy Hope, is an undefeated boxer who we see winning the World Light Heavyweight championship in the film’s opening scene. His style involves getting hit a lot by his opponent, letting his anger build up and then unleashing on his foe in the later rounds, which (after a 43 match winning streak) is finally starting to worry his wife, played by Rachel McAdams, who thinks he can’t continue like this for much longer and wants him to quit while he’s on top. But Billy’s temperament makes him reluctant to take his wife’s advice, especially with an eager young challenger on the horizon in the form of Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar.

This doesn’t start out as the typical underdog story – rather it starts with Hope already an undefeated veteran. So far so good in my book; it’s somewhat refreshing to think we aren’t here simply to sit through another typical boxing movie training montage in the run-up to the ‘fight of his life’.

Except that is kind of what Southpaw becomes as we approach the halfway point. A harrowing life event (ruined for you if you’ve seen the trailer) sends Billy and his family into a downward spiral that means the loss of everything he had worked for. Carrying a load of debt, a bruised reputation and having lost the relationship with his daughter, Billy finds himself hitting rock bottom and having to work his way back up. Enter Forest Whitaker who gradually helps him learn to control his temperament and become a better fighter, with a full-on training montage in tow as Billy Hope prepares for his big comeback.

Now, let me establish a couple of things here. First, to say this movie succumbs to all the genre cliches you can imagine is not to say I didn’t enjoy it as a result. Second, while comparisons to a certain other film from the 1970s are inevitable, I believe these are unfair. The difference between this film and that one is the same as the difference between their two leads – they are clearly in a separate weight class and should be judged in those respective terms. It also goes without saying that they were made for two different generations. Southpaw is, while perhaps not quite as well-rounded in its storytelling, at least as entertaining as that movie when it pertains to the sport of boxing. Had it come first then I daresay critics would be raving about it a lot more.

Alas, it did not come first; it has arrived 40 years later. Due to a few glaring faults it is also going to struggle to be remembered for the right reasons when it comes to the end of this year.

There is a general feeling with Southpaw that some of the cast and crew have come along for a fun ride rather than to indulge their passion for filmmaking. For example, I’ll ask a question to which I know there is no serious artistic answer: what exactly is Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson doing here? You’re never quite sure whether his smugness is supposed to be a character trait or just 50 Cent being, well, himself. Why is he in this film, aside from the obvious fact that he’s friends with the other rapper so prominent on its soundtrack?

I think partially as a result of this almost flippant overall approach, intended sub-plots end up falling flat, including one in particular featuring a kid that Billy starts to become attached to during the course of his training; the resolution to which is brushed off when it should be a major turning point for his character development.

Having said that, there are still some great things about this movie. Fine performances from the core cast, such as Gyllenhaal, Whitaker and most of all Oona Laurence, who is a revelation as Billy’s daughter Leila, go a long way to papering over the film’s cracks. Some of the best moments are when it gets to the emotional side of the story between Billy and his daughter as they go through their rocky period and ultimate reconciliation (come on, that’s no spoiler), while the fight sequences get up close and personal with the faces of the boxers – making it seem almost like you’re experiencing the literal blood, sweat and tears along with them.

You can tell Gyllenhaal himself put a lot into this role; his muscular physique is a stark contrast to the thin build he had only last year for Nightcrawler’s Lou Bloom. Unfortunately, aside from the physicality of the fights, the material he is given to work with in Southpaw isn’t quite as compelling as in his last role, and it would be difficult to make a case for him getting a nod for best actor this time around. This isn’t a groundbreaking role by any means, partly because we’ve seen it all before, and we’ve seen that Gyllenhaal has so much more in his skill set as an actor than is on show here.

When all’s said and done, I’ll still admit that I actually very much enjoyed this film. It’s not aiming to win any awards for originality, but honestly, if you come into Southpaw knowing what you’re getting, it won’t disappoint. Gyllenhaal fans and boxing fans alike (I consider myself moderately both) will deem it adequate at the very least, and if one looks past the nit-picking, it’ll provide enough interest and entertainment to be considered a worthy cinema trip. Whether it will have lasting appeal remains to be seen. But for now, I’ll give it a flawed pass.

7 / 10