Many a True Word Said in jest (IJDP 7.3)
By Pat O’Hare
“A friend of mine suggested this week that given all the controversy at the Olympic Games about who is taking drugs, it might be easier just to let everybody take them and thereby even out the chances of the competitors”.
Thus wrote Jo Brand on Saturday 28 July 1996 in The Independent. The Olympic Games is in full swing in Atlanta. The USA, this time dressed up as Coca Cola, once again having shown the world that it controls almost everything by paying the autocratic former Fascist Juan Samaranch enough money to buy the games, in the process being economical with the truth about incidentals such as the average temperature in Atlanta, which is considerably higher and more uncomfortable than claimed. In spite of the efforts of Coca Cola to ban it at the venues, water is available at a price, probably higher than that of Coke.
The major controversy of the first week centred on the Irish swimmer, Michelle Smith, who dared to win three gold medals that US swimmers should really have won. The American swimmers and management then mounted a campaign against her that insinuated that she had doped her way to the medals. (She was eventually banned for a lengthy period for further offences). Yesterday (28 July 1996), three competitors were thrown out of the games for doping. Nothing very surprising! For a long time now it has been evident to anyone with a pair of eyes that athletes, people involved in all sports, have been taking banned substances to do what they do faster, higher and stronger. Panorama, a BBC television programme alleged before the Games started that 75% of the competitors had used performance enhancing drugs. Occasionally a famous athlete is tested and, because he or she has made a mistake in the timing, a positive result occurs. Ben Johnson springs to mind. He wanted to go even faster and so took Stanozolol too close to the event.
Of course, there is the wider question of the use of performance enhancing drugs outside sport regulated by the International Olympic Committee and, in fact, outside any form of sport. The main arguments against the use of such drugs are that it is cheating and that it is harmful to health.
The first argument has always puzzled me. The idea that sport is played on a 'level playing field' was persuasively challenged by Richard Nicholson (1987). For the top competitors sport is as fair as the size of your wallet. Not everyone can afford to train at altitude at St Moritz as Sebastian Coe could. Not everyone can have access to the latest technology. One of the African baseball teams at this Olympic Games couldn't even afford enough balls to train with because one ball costs the equivalent of a week's wages. Balls ceased to be 'latest technology' some time ago. How level is that playing field?
The health risks seem to me to be greatly overstated but they exist. Chronic, uncontrolled use of almost anything is harmful and there will continue to be casualties given the present attitude of the authorities. But sport itself is harmful. People die and are injured every year whilst taking part in sport. Dehydration is a serious prospect in endurance sports at this year's Games. A competitor at Atlanta had a mild heart attack when he realised he had won a medal. If the criterion is potential health damage why was Peter Elliott, a British competitor, allowed to compete in an Olympic final, some years ago, having had a perfectly legal injection of hydrocortisone to mask the pain of a serious ankle injury. Pain is supposed to be the body's natural harm reduction mechanism. Why is a 'performance enabler' allowed but a 'performance enhancer' not (Shapiro, 1991), especially when the risk of causing damage by running on a serious ankle injury is very high? Peter Elliott in fact never really competed at the highest level again.
I think Jo Brand's friend may have something. Forget all these Victorian ideas about level playing fields. Even the competition to hold the Games is not that even. Juan Samaranch, Head of the IOC, takes a plough regularly to any level fields that stand in the way of his staying in power. Let's legalise the use of performance enhancing drugs and control their use better. Take away all of the hypocrisy. Educate athletes in the safer ways of using them and about their often exaggerated benefits. Athletes can use steroids for example and be healthy (Millar, 1995). Don't waste all the money spent on testing equipment by making testing diagnostic to help athletes to avoid risk.
Michael Johnson broke the world record in the 200 metres by a long way in last week's final and Ben Johnson's victory at the Seoul Olympics, in which he broke the I 00 metres record, was for me one of the most wonderful sporting sights of all time. The fact that Ben Johnson was proven to have had an illegal substance inside him at the time is irrelevant to me. Both performances were spectacular and wonderful to watch. Ben Johnson's mistake was to be the one found out. Meanwhile, I will continue to team about the best ways of using caffeine to boost my performance. I will continue to take creatine sulphate in the pursuance of my very amateur cycling career, in the knowledge, real or imagined, that it enhances my performance. It makes me feel better, I think it makes me go faster, I certainly don't feet that I am cheating and it's legal ... for the moment.
Thanks to Pat Lenehan, Editor of the Journal of Performance Enhancing Drugs, for comments on an earlier draft.
The Independent (1996) Jo Brand's week. Saturday, 28 July 1996.
Millar A (1995) The medical prescription of anabolic steroids. International Journal of Drug Policy 7(l) 15-18.
Nicholson R (1987) Drugs in sport; a reappraisal. Institute of Medical Ethics Bulletin, Suppl. 7:1-25.
Shapiro H (1991) Running scared: the use of drugs in sport. British Journal of Addiction 86: 5-8.