DrugsSome drugs make you fly high. Other drugs make you go low. Some make you fall on your back. Others make you bounce. Even more make you run like a cheetah, swim like a sword fish, jump like a kangaroo, and throw like a, ummm, throwing machine? It is these latter types that athletes have been primarily interested in, and athletics events have been dogged by the misuse of drugs to the point at which we may regard it as the Jim Morrison of sport. The names of many athletes have become synonymous with “drugs cheat” and one of the latest is the sprinter Dwain Chambers.

Dwain Chambers recently won his struggle for inclusion in the Great British team for the World Championships in Valencia, but not without great upset amongst the sport’s governors and fellow athletes. After being a very naughty boy and indulging in a banned steroid or two he was caught and disciplined and given a two year ban. But having now served that ban and having won the 60m race at the national trials last Sunday in a time of 6.55 seconds he has rightly qualified for inclusion. Despite this the selection committee of UK Athletics stomped their feet a little and dithered around before finally releasing a statement:

“The committee was unanimous in its desire not to select Dwain. Taking him to the World Indoors deprives young, upwardly mobile committed athletes of this key development opportunity…it is extremely frustrating to leave young athletes at home; eligible for Beijing, in possession of the qualifying standard and committed to ongoing participation in a drug-free sport. Unfortunately, the committee felt that the selection criteria pertaining to the winner of the Trials, coupled with the manner of Dwain’s performance, left them no room to take any other decision.”

So there you go: didn’t want to pick him, but had to. It’s certainly a long way from, “Welcome aboard! Best wishes Dwain, we’ll be cheering you every step of the way.” Why wasn’t that decision easier to reach? The rules and precedents of the sport are fairly clear, and had the committee decided otherwise there would have been moves by Chamber’s solicitor Nick Collins to take the UKA to the High Court for restraint of trade. Commenting on the matter Collins said: “[The committee’s decision] honors the tradition of the English legal system that when an offender has paid his penalty he starts again with a clean sheet.”

Quite right to. He was caught and disciplined and given a two year ban according to the rules. If athletics bodies want to give life bans they should change the rules rather than bitching about cases like this. Chambers has done the crime and the time, so must not be treated as some kind of pariah figure by the sport’s governing bodies or other athletes. They should accept his inclusion. Regrettably some other athletes see it a little differently. Dame Kelly Holmes, no less, was rather scathing about the decision:

“This was an athlete who went to America, knowingly took a drug that was undetectable at the time, got caught, admitted he’d taken drugs, then went on to say that you can’t win anything without taking drugs. And then he goes and competes again. I presume because he wants to win. I don’t believe he should be running because you are representing your country. I don’t think it puts us in a good light as a country allowing a cheat, who has admitted he’s a cheat, to represent us.”

The only problem Kelly is that to deny participation to Chambers would be tantamount to breaking the rules for the purposes of punishing an athlete for breaking the rules. And before we hear any moralising from the UKA it must be pointed out that they employ Linford Christie as a coach despite his own flirtation with drugs in the past.

The rules of any sport are flexible and change over time. Sometimes the pressure for changes comes from participants, other times it will come from spectators, and sometimes from governing bodies trying to lift the profile of the sport or make it more appealing and relevant to a new generation. The motivation behind banning drugs is often a PR stunt – in the words of one commentator: “to inspire public confidence that what they are seeing is a genuine performance.” So serious do some see the issue of drugs that there are frequent calls for life bans for those who break the rules and for more and better testing procedures. Whether or not the sport moves in this direction is largely a matter for its governing bodies, participants and supporters. But there are questions that very few commentators have raised. The discussion proceeds with the question “what kind of punishment for drugs users?” rather than asking, “why ban drugs at all?”

“Genuine performance” is just another buzz term that gets tossed around with wreckless abandon in this debate. Other such terms include: “performance enhancing drugs,” “unfair advantage,” and “unnatural assistance.”

Just why should we be appalled that some drugs “enhance performance” any more than a good set of running shoes, an expert coach, access to better facilities, and more investment all contribute to the enhancing of an athletes performance? What I want to ask is: just what is the problem with sportsmen and sportswomen using certain substances to enhance their performance? Why are some chemicals banned but many other chemicals perfectly acceptable to boost performance? I’ve searched and searched and can’t find any convincing arguments for the banning of some chemicals and not others, or why chemical “enhancement” is different from other types of “enhancement” to the extent that it must be banned.

The argument that drug use gives one sportsman an “unfair advantage” over another fares no better, in fact it’s a tad absurd. A drug can only give an “unfair” advantage by virtue of the fact that it is banned. If the drugs in question weren’t banned then every competitor could use them if they wish thus removing the possibility of “unfair” advantage. Of course there will still be advantageous effects of one sportsman using a drug whilst his competitor doesn’t, but this happens in all other areas of sport. Some competitors have better track shoes, coaches, dieticians, money, facilities and more than their opponents, yet no one ever refers to this as an “unfair” advantage. Take Formula One racing – some guys have vastly superior cars, but few complain much about this fairly obvious advantage as being in any way “unfair.” Put these guys into Ford Fiestas and they aren’t going to go anywhere fast. The same with Carl Lewis in a pair of Moses sandals. You often get the impression from those opposed to the use of drugs that it takes away from those athletes who work hard. But taking drugs doesn’t win you Olympic gold automatically. It’s not like you take a few steroids, throw your feet up on the sofa watching Friends re-runs with a bucket of coke in one hand, a big bowl of crisps in the other, your rotund middle strewn with chocolate bars and merely await the steroids doing all the work for you. It doesn’t work like that. Drugs at best give you a bit of an edge, but they’re no substitute for hard work.

But wouldn’t these currently banned drugs be bad for an athlete’s health? Not necessarily. Some of the drugs aren’t bad at all, and many are naturally occurring chemicals which the body makes to some degree anyway (testosterone, for instance). Even if the drugs are in some way “bad” for health then it would still be the athlete’s choice whether or not to risk their use. Isn’t it a bit condescending to dictate to rational adults what they can and can’t put into their bodies? Not to mention the fact that some sports are surely bad for health: boxing can’t be good, and muscle tears, broken bones, sprains, slipped discs, and many other conditions are frequent occurrences in most sports. Sport is a dangerous business. Should we start banning some of them because of the dangers to health that they inherently involve?

One problem that the sport may face in the not too distant future is the possible creation of undetectable drugs. The drug Dwain Chambers took was supposedly undetectable, but he got caught. What happens if there is a drug that can’t be detected? In theory every athlete could be taking it and no one would know. In this scenario it is eminently more sensible to legalise drug use.

Personally, I’m not against performance enhancing drugs in any sport. As a spectator all I’m really interested in is seeing people run faster, jump further and higher, throw further, and swim at sword-fish speeds. We’re not talking about rocket packs for swimmers, motorised shoes for runners, or springs for high jumpers. But I long to see the day that earmuffs are provided in the Olympic stadium to protect from the sonic booms of the track events. I look forward to the days when the only sand pit big enough for the long jump is the Sahara. Roll on the days when the javlin throwers from the Middle East are withdrawn from competing because their countries need them to launch long distance rockets at each other.

What a spectacle this would be. In the early days of the Olympics in Greece the games were venerated and the competitors treated like heroes, risking their lives (which were frequently lost in wrestling events and chariot races) in the pursuit of excellence. Might not allowing the use of drugs help us recapture that spirit? If nothing else it would provide a level playing field for all and end the shambles that has dogged the sport for decades.


PS…Kids: Don’t take drugs. OK? Drugs are bad. OK?