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Off Piste: Dope and glory

The ban on performance-boosting substances in sport is a self-satisfied nonsense, argues historian Geoffrey Alderman in a fortnightly series allowing academics to step outside their area of expertise

Who is the fastest man in the world? Is it Asafa Powell, who three years ago ran the 100m in 9.77 seconds? Or perhaps Michael Johnson, who in 1996 ran the 200m in 19.32 seconds - equating to 9.66 seconds for each 100m? The sporting aficionados among you relish this type of question. So here's another. Before Powell, who was the fastest man on earth? The record books will tell you that it was Carl Lewis, who at the 1987 world championships in Rome ran the 100m in 9.83 seconds.

But it wasn't. A year later, at the Seoul Olympics, the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson ran the distance in 9.79 seconds - just one fiftieth of a second slower than Powell. The problem is that Ben Johnson, after competing, gave a routine urine sample that tested positive for stanozolol, a steroid-based substance that is banned by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). He was "stripped" of his gold medal, and his name was expunged from the record books.

The IAAF website is an altar dedicated to the cocksure self-satisfaction of an Establishment that thinks it has a God-given right to occupy the moral high ground of athletics. The organisation has recently reached an agreement with the Association of Athletics Managers, whose members will henceforth refuse to represent any athlete who tests positive and is convicted of a doping violation for which he or she serves a ban of two years or more. "We applaud the AAM for its forward thinking and action," an IAAF spokesperson declared. "The future of our sport depends on people finding ways to rid our ranks of those who use or turn a blind eye to the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs."

Note the words used. "Convicted" and "illegal" suggest that the taking of performance-enhancing drugs constitutes a criminal offence. In fact, very few athletes who take such drugs are ever brought before the criminal courts. The phrase "doping violation" brings to mind the doping of racing horses and greyhounds - generally to make them perform less well - and conjures up (no doubt deliberately) the image of a sordid and grubby world.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) maintains a list of prohibited substances. To be included on the list, a substance must fulfil at least two of the following criteria:

  • it must enhance performance;
  • it must self-harm;
  • its use must be contrary to the "spirit of sport" - whatever that might mean, which is invariably whatever the WADA wants it to mean.

If a sample taken from an athlete is found to contain a prohibited substance (some of which the body produces naturally), the athlete is guilty unless he or she can prove his or her innocence. So much for the rules of natural justice. And the madness does not end there. Athletes are not only forbidden from using drugs that may enhance their performance. They may not even be able to use drugs that you or I may use, or be prescribed, to help our recovery from, say, an infection, because such assistance may accelerate and shorten the natural recovery period.

But before we consider the wider implications of this madness, we might pause to ask why such drugs are banned at all.

Three reasons have been given to me. The first is that the taking of such drugs might constitute a criminal offence. Well, of course it might. But why not leave that to the proper law-enforcement authorities?

The second is that the taking of such drugs might constitute a form of self-harm. So it might. I am addicted to caffeine, and according to some medical authorities I am harming myself through this addiction (although, mind you, according to others I am doing my heart and my sexual drive a power of good).

Be that as it may, I would have thought that I and I alone should judge (based on an evaluation of the evidence) whether ingesting, inhaling or injecting any substance causes me harm and, if so, whether I should run any attendant risk. That, I would have thought, is my business and no one else's. Curiously, the WADA list does not include tobacco or tobacco products, which must be self-harming by any definition, but which the WADA has apparently deemed not to be contrary to the spirit of sport.

The third reason is that ingesting, inhaling or injecting a prohibited substance constitutes a form of "cheating". It enhances my "natural" ability to run, jump, throw. And it therefore amounts to an unfair advantage.

This argument fails to convince. Many substances that are not prohibited may also enhance my performance. Athletes are very particular about their general diet - as they should be - and some are said to have secret diets, developed by their coaches over many years and closely guarded from prying eyes and mouths. If the IAAF were really true to its mission, it should surely rule that such diets, too, are capable of "jeopardising the moral fabric of sport" (to quote from its website once more) and ban them, compelling all athletes instead to stick to identical IAAF-approved diets when they train and compete.

And athletes who come from high-altitude countries (such as Ethiopia and Bolivia), and who are therefore accustomed to functioning on less oxygen, should surely have a handicap applied - perhaps some lead weights affixed to their midriff - when they compete at or near sea level.

The taking of a prohibited substance can constitute an unfair advantage only if the substance is available to some athletes (who are able to obtain a reliable supply) but not to others. One way of meeting this objection would be to abandon the list of prohibited substances and permit athletes to take whatever they wish, provided of course that they are given authoritative information as to the possible harm they may be doing themselves. Create a level playing field, and scrap the entire apparatus of testing, naming and shaming.

And so we return to the wider question: does the taking of drugs to enhance performance really constitute a morally reprehensible act?

I cannot for the life of me understand why it should. Both here and in the US it is becoming fashionable for academics to take intellectual performance-enhancing drugs.

I stick to caffeine. But last year two distinguished Cambridge researchers, Barbara Sahakian (professor of clinical neuropsychology at the Addenbrooke's Hospital) and Sharon Morein-Zamir (research associate at the department of psychiatry, University of Cambridge), reported in Nature (20 December 2007) on the results of an informal survey they had conducted among their colleagues. Their findings revealed that some - a few - were taking cognitive-enhancing drugs such as Provigil, which is used to treat narcolepsy and other severe sleep disorders. The drug, which has the generic name of modafinil, is sometimes taken by soldiers to help them stay awake and hone their combative abilities, and is occasionally prescribed to "treat" jet lag. According to Sahakian and Morein-Zamir, one British academic obtains this drug from an internet site and uses it to enhance productivity and to assist when confronting intellectual challenges.

It is claimed that such drugs (Ritalin is another) keep users more alert and better able to take wise decisions. Whether they actually do so is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether taking them is likely to jeopardise "the moral fabric" of academia. Are we to prohibit students from using such substances when sitting exams? Are students to be required to provide urine samples as they enter the examination room? Am I, when submitting a learned article to a refereed journal, duty bound to declare whether any part of it is based on research that I carried out while under the influence of a drug that improved my memory or concentration? And are the research councils going to "sanction", name and shame me on their websites (following the practice of the IAAF) if they find out that I use such a drug?

One has only to consider any of these scenarios for a moment to realise how ludicrous and grotesque they are. Whether or not I use a performance-enhancing drug, the work is still mine, the fruits of my labours. If a student, assisted by modafinil, stays up all night swotting before an exam, the exam performance remains totally legitimate, without the slightest hint of academic dishonesty or malpractice.

And so it is, or should be, in the worlds of athletics and other sports.

The man whom I and millions of others saw on television running and winning the 100m at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, at the then world-record time of 9.79 seconds, was Ben Johnson. It was not an impostor. The performance was 100 per cent genuine. Does it matter that the British runner Linford Christie - who in 1993 became the first man to hold the British, Commonwealth, European, Olympic and world records for the 100m (and who still holds the UK record) - was banned by the IAAF after the performance-enhancing drug nandrolone was allegedly found in his system (1999)?

Yes, but only because it demonstrates how spiteful the IAAF can be in overruling the British athletics authorities and in brushing aside evidence that the drug might well have originated innocently in permitted nutritional supplements.

There are echoes of the venom that was aimed at Christie in the much more recent controversy surrounding another British sprinter, Dwain Chambers. In February 2004, Chambers received a two-year ban from UK Athletics after he was found to have taken the "designer steroid" THG. As far as the British Olympic Association is concerned, he is apparently banned for life, but in all other respects his "conviction" is "spent", and in February he qualified for the 60 metres at the World Indoor Championships in Valencia, where he subsequently won a silver medal.

It is worth pointing out that when UK Athletics imposed the ban on Chambers, THG was not actually listed as a prohibited substance by the IAAF. So much for natural justice. But UK Athletics is unrepentant. Its view is that "to allow the use of prohibited substances or methods would be to allow science to decide who wins or loses - it would take the athlete out of athletics".

This is palpable nonsense.

Readers' comments (4)

  • You can discuss these things in medical terms, as here. You can also discuss whether the rules of some sport on banned substances are good or bad, as the author does, offering some interesting arguments. That misses the point, though. The athletes know the rules. Those who infringe them are cheating. That is why they should be punished. Argue against the rules, if you think they are wrong, to get them changed. It is unlikely that abiding by the rules on banned substances will damage an athlete's normal health. So while the rules are there, don't break them.

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  • Prof. Alderman says that some academics take modafinal and similar cognitive-enhancing drugs. What if my institution pressured me to do the same? I'd be in a similar position to a 'clean' athlete who knew that competitors who took drugs risked no bans. His failure to include this obvious point among the three reasons he considers, and rejuects, as to why drugs should be banned largely invalidates his article.

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  • I agree with the objections raised in the other comments, but would add the following: a good number of athletes want to perform to the extent of their natural ability and no further. Where is the justice for these athletes when they are outperformed by others of lesser ability whose performances are artificially enhanced? Aside from this point, there is so much wrong with Prof. Aldereman's argument that I hardly know where to start - his suggestion that the effects of a careful diet can in some way be compared to the impact of an extremely sophisticated cocktail of chemical enhancers is not only specious but suggests he knows very little about the way athletes actually use performance enhancing drugs and their capacity to turn an 'average' elite athlete into a worldbeater. Ben Johnson is a classic example - he was a 'second rank' sprinter for years before he suddenly began running startling times. Prof. Alderman's suggestion that to consider an athlete guilty following a positive test is a breach of natural justice is just mystifying. If the forensic evidence is there and is persuasive, then surely that's a pretty strong indication of guilt and it's up to the athlete to argue againstthe evidence? Our courts decide guilt or innocence on the basis of evidence, do they not? And every athlete has the opportunity to appeal against a sanction. Finally, the comparison with academia is just daft and - here's the rub - the most level playing field is the one on which nobody takes performance enhancing drugs, rather than one on which every athlete can theoretically use the same drugs. In no way is this a level playing field, anyway - Dwain Chambers, for instance, took a cocktail of seven banned substances in carefully prescribed doses which were used in a sophisticated relationship with his off-season training programme. At least one of the drugs (THG) was created specifically to evade detection by drug-testers; and all would have been prescribed and administered by medical professionals in conjunction with experienced coaches at a probable cost of tens of thousands of dollars a year. Now you tell me which athletes from developing countries, or which athletes just starting out, can afford to compete with that? How is that a level playing field? Sporting fraud is what it is.

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  • Most sport is between consenting indivduals and teams which do not use drugs and are pleased to compete at whatever level they find to be sensibly competitive, that is where they have some chance of winning even if losing is likely to be the norm. Indeed there are always few winners since that is the nature of healthy competition. The benefits to people's health, the economy, social and personal development which result from sport require a setting of standards of some kind. It is less about winners than a level playing field. That playing field must include the vast majority of sportspeople who are necessarily losers at sport though winners by a more enlightened set of criteria. The thrust of Professor Alderman's remarks taken to their conclusion would simply mean that the vasy majority of sportspeople would feel it necessary to take drugs or desist from sporting participation with a loss of all its benefits.

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