It’s surprisingly coincidental timing that not long after Lance Armstrong comes clean about his own doping past, that a new investigation comes riding in on a wave of publicity into Australian sports and its ties to doping.
As a longtime cycling fan, the issue is no longer painful to discuss, as it may be for others who are hearing about this for the first time, and I can’t help feel an element of schadenfreude. For too many years, cycling has been labelled as a dirty sport, as if there were something especially derelict about cyclists’ morality. Now it turns out the mainstream sports were just as (allegedly) deep in it. As one wry Fairfax commenter pointed out, the surprise is not that there was (allegedly) doping but rather that anyone is surprised that it is/was taking place.
The doping problem boils down to a simple fact: elite athletes aren’t normal. They give up the best days of their brief existence on earth, dedicating each aspect of their time, diet and energy to a regimen designed to take them from genetic superfreaks to the best in their world in their discipline. Is it any surprise that they accept a pharmaceutical edge over their rivals when offered?
Add in the fact that your contract is worth millions each year and the risk of getting caught very small and the punishment almost non-existent, then you’re almost doing yourself a disservice by not taking all available paths.
However, doping soon becomes an arms race. If the top guy starts, then his close rivals need to take it up to keep pace. Soon, the rest of his competitors need to take it up just keep in shouting distance. Eventually, the whole field is doping because it is the new normal. The first guy to quit is the first guy going out the back of a race.
The benefits of doping in sports like cycling, cross-country skiing and weightlifting are enormous because they are sports dictated by physiology first, strategy and skill second. Different qualities are required in all codes of football, some of which can be better honed by training than steroids or EPO. Nonetheless, if you’re fresher or stronger than your marker at the end of a game, you’ll play better. That’s the edge. It may only be marginal but in a battle of genetic outliers, it’s enough to get your team over the line.
It is a long bow to draw but it may be Armstrong’s downfall which finally casts light on this dim realm. Some may question the wisdom of enforcing anti-doping policy (levels the playing field, being a common call) but I have three responses:
- A number of young cyclists died in their sleep in the early 90s from EPO abuse. Kids don’t know what they’re doing and shouldn’t be pressured to join a drug-taking sub-culture to participate in what is an otherwise healthy activity.
- Most of the doping products on the market are designed for other purposes. EPO is used to treat chronic anemia. Doping products sold to well-paid athletes raises the price of vital medical products for healthcare providers, making treatment of very serious illnesses harder to obtain for the people who need it.
- Many athletes are supported by their government. As a taxpayer, I don’t want my tax dollars going to support a doping mafia. I’d rather never see Australia win another gold medal at the Olympics than pay for a state-sponsored doping program.
It is not a simple task to quash doping. Eradication is impossible and merely keeping a lid on the athletes’ habits is perhaps the best that anti-doping agencies can hope for but it is worth fighting for. Hopefully, Australian sport can take some notes from other sports which have already been through the mud, gotten dry and been dumped back in again.
Editor’s note: For a more complete defence of anti-doping that was posted between this article’s writing and posting, see here.