Drugs in sport

Roger Bannister. Image Credit: Wikipedia

David Brailsford, Bradley Wiggins and Seb Coe are in the firing line over doping, with much hand-wringing talk about ‘ethical lines’.

Roger Bannister. Image Credit: Wikipedia
Roger Bannister. Image Credit: Wikipedia

It’s all irrelevant. Professional sports is about winning, nothing else. At that level there is no such thing as ethics, or if there is it’s down the A12 and if you get to Suffolk you’ve gone too far. There is legal and there is illegal, and if you choose the latter you do so because the reward is greater than the risk. Careers are short, and if everyone else is doing it then the temptation to follow suit is overwhelming.

Anyone here heard of Christophe Bassons? He was a French cyclist who rode clean, and everyone knew that. Wouldn’t take anything illegal, no matter how much money he was offered. Wouldn’t do it, even when he was on his knees with fatigue mid-race and his team-mates begged him to do so. A man of iron principle. A good man, a strong man. Never won a thing. Shunned by the peloton for daring to speak out: hounded out of the sport by those he rode with and against. ‘I started feeling isolated. In the middle of 170 riders, that’s a tough way to live.’ Was it worth it? Only he knows.

Too much money at stake to settle for second best. Team Sky and their much-vaunted marginal gains only ends in one place: you take every single law and you bend it until just before the point where it breaks. Allowed to use a drug on a therapeutic use exemption? Do it. Declare your riders asthmatic and allow them inhalers? Do it.

So too with Coe and athletics.

Too many sponsors, too much investment, too many people in too many places who need to keep feeding the beast. This is a man who has consistently spoken out against drugs, who even his worst enemy would concede ran clean throughout his stellar career: yet when you’re the man at the top of the heap, you can’t just drain the swamp, you can’t just take a broom to the whole filthy mess, because if you do you will choke off the cash and destroy your sport.

Note too that cycling and athletics are at least making some kind of effort to catch the cheats. You think tennis doesn’t have a huge doping problem? Or rugby? Or football? If so, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Hell, one of the Russian curlers at the Winter Olympics was even on the sauce. For curling! Swept that ice like a goddam pro, though.

Yesterday, one of the last great amateurs died: Roger Bannister, a man who made his own indelible piece of athletics history, but who valued a race against a great rival and good friend higher than that record, and who valued his own work in the field of neurology much higher than either. Bannister knew the essential truth of sport: that its beauty is in its inconsequence. The moment it becomes everything is the moment it becomes nothing.


A guest post by Boris Starling.

Boris contributed a chapter on Harry Mahon for the Rowing Tales Anthology.  He is a professional writer and author of 7 crime novels.

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