The Blog

In Defence of Drug Cheats

Only by accepting the realities of doping, as we would any criminal other activity, will we eradicate it.

If I was an elite level athlete I think I'd take performance-enhancing drugs. I suspect most of them do. With the exception of the ones that get caught, they're not stupid.

If Mo Farah or Chris Froome, for example, are not taking the drugs they're accused of taking, they are being poorly advised. There is a great deal of money to be made from doping and relatively little downside, certainly compared to other forms of theft or organised crime.

Crucially, there isn't really a victim.

Instead, we are the stupid ones: the crowd that looks on credulously, that pays to watch, that is infinite in our capacity to be astonished and outraged when it becomes clear profoundly competitive people will do whatever it takes to win large amounts of money.

We are the stupid ones because we cleave obstinately to notions of the purity of sport that we picked up as children - playing games at school or in the park - before we really knew what cheating was.

It is natural that we hold we these ideals as dearly as we cherish the innocence of our own youth - how else to explain our willingness to make ourselves wilfully blind to the realities of professional sport?

This, of course, is why the outrage we experience when doping is discovered is so intense - we take it personally, an affront to the child within us. (Notice Lance Armstrong, sport's most illustrious doper, has been given the nickname "Voldemort" by the media - an evil character from a children's book.)

But our deliberate blindness - our reluctance to confront properly the obvious reality of widespread doping - perpetuates the cycle of cheating. It makes cheating at elite levels of competition easier, not harder.

In all sports - cycling, athletics, football, rugby, tennis, boxing, to name but a few - we see today physiques and sustained aerobic performances that clearly defy both logic and the evidence of recorded human evolution.

And yet, when we watch the Olympic hundred metres' final, or when we see the mountain stages of the Tour de France, or when we see how rugby players have doubled in size, speed and endurance, we are happy to suspend our disbelief and to bask instead in optimism about our species' abilities.

This is the sharp end of sport as entertainment - the magic that jerks us out of our seats and makes us go "ooh" and not "WTF?" We want to believe.

More and more, in broad daylight, athletes and cyclists, particularly, pass marks or smash times set by known dopers, and for the most part we stand and we cheer. And so the lucrative charade continues.

How relatively slow, for example, doper Ben Johnson's hundred metres' best of 9.79 seconds now seems (it's not even in the top thirty quickest times). Times set by Armstrong, too, in the prime of his doping career, for particularly gruelling mountain ascents, are also now being beaten by more than a minute.

But sportsmen and women are not natural cheats. Common sense says they don't want to dope and the vast majority wouldn't if they didn't know their rivals were doing it without detection or sanction. Only in May, the BBC's Panorama demonstrated how easy it is to pass a doping test after taking human growth hormone (EPO).

Athletes don't really have a choice, certainly not the choice the sanctimonious or the pious would have us believe. For how else can they compete?

What person in their right mind would turn their back on a glorious career of adulation, wealth and success - the fulfillment of the rarest of talents - to take a normal job, all for the sake of a few pills or injections, that everyone else is already taking?

It is human nature to cheat if you feel your opponent is cheating and not being caught (if you doubt this, play online Scrabble with your friends).

When we catch dopers - like Armstrong, like sprinter Justin Gatlin, like tennis player Wayne Odesnik - we should fight the urge to ostracise them completely.

Instead, we should try to sympathise with them a little - if for no reason other than that it would it be unconscionable to be put in the same position.

We should work with them and learn from them - we should harness their experience and knowledge, to make sure young sportspeople are not put under the same pressures in the future.

Because what is the purpose of sport, essentially? Is it not, at its most fundamental, to find out of what the human body is capable?

Then is it not possible that in our desire to be ever more amazed by humanity - to be amazed by ourselves - we make ourselves more complicit in elite level sports' cheating than we realise, or than we would like to admit?

It is easier, for sure, to be appalled by fallen champions than it is to try to empathise with them. But, by turning a blind eye, by believing the unbelievable, we are all a little to blame. We are cheating ourselves.

Only by accepting the realities of doping, as we would any criminal other activity, will we eradicate it.