Drugged up

first_imgThis summer Lance Armstrong completed one of the most amazing performances in sporting history, absolutely dominating the three week, 3,000 mile super-race that is the Tour de France to  seal an awesome seventh win in succession. The majority reaction, among fans of the race was far from uniform adulation. Admiration was present, of course, but it was clouded with a wondering – is he a drugs cheat? Armstrong points out that he’s the most tested man in his sport; but more and more people just don’t buy it. It seems incredible – but  scratch the surface it becomes depressingly obvious that there’s every reason to doubt Armstrong and his colleagues in sport.The fundamental problem is that drug testing simply doesn’t work. It’s not just the huge difficulty of finding deliberately hidden compounds within the vastly complex mixture that is human blood; it’s the fact that often, it doesn’t even come to that because scientists simple don’t know what they’re looking for. EPO, arguably the most notoriously abused drug in history, came onto the cycling scene in the 1980’s; even though usage was known to be rife and determined efforts were made to prevent it, it took till the Sydney Olympics in 2000 for a test to be developed and approved. The same is true of the wonder drug of this decade, THG. Drugs authorities did not even know it existed until a coach anonymously sent a syringeful to US drugs authorities. The results are predictable: David Millar won the World Time Trial  Championships in 2003 and passed every test on the way and subsequently; but after a police raid on his home found syringes and banned substances, he confessed not only to cheating but that he still had the syringes he used to win the title!This allows drugs to simply instituionalise themselves within a sport. It only takes a handful of ruthless individuals. Their performances improve; their opponents must then choose between  losing and juicing up. Of course, this is less of a risk in games of skill like football or cricket, but in the realm of sports where athleticism is half the game, it can be pervasive. Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter (pictured) who won the 100m at the 1988 Olympics only to be disquailfied for using steroids, was once asked why he didn’t compete drug free; he replied this was tantamount to putting his blocks a metre back at the start.Even worse, while cheats get away with it there is no incentive for  administrators to crack down: drugs guarantee new records – they are manna from heaven. As former European 100m Champion Dwain Chambers says, “people want a show”; there can be no doubt drugs bring that. Again, the results are plain to see, in American Football and Baseball in particular; here drugs testing regimes were for years next to non-existent. Cyclist Paul Kimmage, in his book on pro cycling, raged at the governing body he felt created a system which left cyclists with little choice but to cheat.Many ask if Chambers is right – does it really matter if athletes use chemicals to enhance their performance? The answer is a definite yes. Performance enhancing drugs are illegal, and with very good reason: they wreak havoc with the human body to the extent that some are nothing short of lethal. Marco Pantani, the 1998 Tour de France champion, later banned for doping, died last year of heart troubles at just 34; Petra Schneider, the star East German swimmer, is just one of a gaggle of her countreywomen who are very sickly today. Quite aside from the moral argument, anything which forces athletes to choose between risking their career and risking their lives must be stamped out. Which brings us back to Armstrong. Is he cheating? Given that others cheat, and that he always beats them, how could he be clean? Along with all sports fans, I think, I pray he is. The cancer-surviving popular hero has come to symbolise gaining sporting success through grit and tough training. If he’s found to have cheated after denying it for so long, it may be a death knell for the popularity of athletic sports. Sprinting, those old enough to remember say, never recovered from Johnson’s disqualification at Seoul; it would be a shame to see more sports follow suit. Personally, I succumbed to cynicism when l’Equipe announced they had discovered six Armstrong samples from 1999 containing EPO. I still think he’s a great cyclist, because I think everyone in cycling cheats; but I’ve little faith in any of Armstrong’s protestations of innocence.ARCHIVE: 1st week MT 2005last_img

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