Drugs in Sport, Part II: Why Do We Care?

09/04/2013 16:54 BST | Updated 09/06/2013 10:12 BST

It seemed sadly poetic that, in the days following my first post on drugs in sport, Australian prosecutors uncovered proof of systemic doping across football, rugby and cricket. Within the week, the Oscar Pistorius tragedy provided a further insight into the politics behind drugs in sport. The incident saw the golden boy turn pariah and, within days, the authorities were accusing him of drug use. How strange that no-one ever claimed to find testosterone and needles while he was bringing in millions of sponsorship dollars!

Of course, this is not a new pattern. Athletes who have dedicated their life to achieving success often use drugs to realize these aims; right or wrong, this is understandable. Cash-strapped authorities often choose to bury the evidence instead of prosecuting their cash cows; right or wrong, this is understandable. Meanwhile, the public's sentiments remain firmly against the use of drugs in sport. But is this also understandable? Is there any rationale in this rigid outrage against biological manipulation?

I often hear how drugs should remain outlawed because they create an uneven playing field. While I too want fair competition, this idea is ridiculous; if there is anything creates an unfair advantage, it is the existing rules. These limit access to drugs drugs for the majority, while allowing the top stars special dispensation when it comes to testing. The existing testing protocol punishes those using cheaper (detectable) drugs, while those with enough money for designer steroids pass tests with ease. If each athlete was allowed to use the same chemical help, then the playing field becomes entirely level for the first time.

While no-one argues with this logic, the reflex response is a squirming rejection of the obvious. Next comes the almost apologetic assertion; "Drugs are against the spirit of the sport". Maybe this is so. Only the evidence tells us that the Olympiads of Ancient Greece were founded on cheating, bribery and dishonesty. Tales of competitors using wild boar's manure abound, as do accounts of bribing officials to secure victory. Accounts from the time explain how, prior to racing, athletes would ingest bread laced with opiates, consume hallucinogenic fungi and secretly wash this down with a concoction from the hippouris plant. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The double standards are applied to vitamins also. Of course, we feel a lot more comfortable when discussing something that occurs naturally and is produced by the body already. To this end, you will not hear anyone calling for a ban on Vitamin B12 or Magnesium, even though we know they are proven to enhance energy levels and recovery. What is the difference between boosting these naturally-occurring nutrients to supraphysiological levels and doing the same with testosterone or human growth hormone? The concepts are identical, yet just one is considered a sensible step to take care of an athlete's well-being and performance. The other is considered cheating. Hypocrisy?

One might say that, if we are really serious about avoiding biological manipulation, then we must remove athlete's access to nutritionists who can enhance their progress through clever nutrient dosing. Hell, we need to remove their access to supplements altogether - 'natural' food only, please. And to ensure no nutritional advantage occurs, they all need to eat the same food at the same time. And we need to keep all athletes away from mountains to ensure they do not benefit unfairly from altitude training. Perhaps stop them from training altogether?

Obviously, this is ridiculous. I play devil's advocate here only to drive home the point: we need biological manipulation to make sport a spectacle. In fact, I will rephrase that: sport IS biological manipulation. The more pertinent question is to what extent is biological manipulation fair? And can we justify accepting certain forms but not others?

Take the extracting stem cells from umbillicus cords to repair cartilage in knees. No-one would argue that this is an entirely unnatural process, one that provides an athlete with a massive advantage compared to the competitor that lacks the funds to finance such a procedure. We hear nothing from the mainstream media about this, but watch them squeal when the difference in question is a shot of testosterone! Surely, either both are OK, or we take on a fascist attitude to create parity and allow no artificial help of any kind. By the letter of this law, this would mean no more injections for diabetic athletes and no more inhalers for asthmatic competitors. So much for a level playing field.

Restriction will not make things fair. Regardless of the received morality enforced upon us by the media, fairness in sport now means fair access to training facilities and nutritional support. And drugs. The only problem - and this is a real problem - is that the latter can cause damage to the athletes. And that athletes are not exactly the best guardians of their health.

The first documented case of death through PED overdose occurred in 1886, when a Welsh cyclist died after consuming of cocktail of cocaine, caffeine and strychnine. During the 90s, a period characterized by rampant use of EPO in professional cycling, at least a dozen cyclists died suddenly in their sleep. 2001 marked the height of baseball's 'steroid era' and saw Billy Bonds hit a records 73 runs but, in the same time frame, his feet allegedly grew from 10.5 to 13 (note: it is actually abuse of growth hormone that causes this affect, not steroids). Clearly, any legislation on drugs in sports should not just focus on fairness, but also on protecting athletes from themselves.

I am not proposing any revolutionary solution. My aim is simply to incite discussion based on what is actually happening. I am not pro-drugs, just pro-reality; more than most, I recognise (and often measure) the damage that drugs can do to the body and the havoc they can play with hormonal balance and liver health. And yes, I do note the irony when laypeople profess their outrage at drugs in sport, doing so as they gulp down a coffee and knock back paracetamol to deal with their hangover (forgetting the statins, beta-blockers and anti-depressants that they swallowed hours earlier). We are a nation of drug-takers and hypocrites. While this remains the case, should we expect anything else from our athletes?