Great white dope


Legalising performance enhancing substances could breathe fresh life into sport and increase the awe factor in athletics even further, writes Robert Ranson

Imagine the day we see a Pfizer-sponsored Usain Bolt race against a Hoffmann-La Roche-backed Mo Farah. Wouldn’t we all love the honesty? The large multinationals would compete with each other to “juice up” the most promising athletes and this fantastic spectacle would draw huger crowds.

What a wonderful opportunity for science and sport to collaborate in the search for a perfect athlete, or Übermensch. It might even get kids interested in science. Forget ideas about bonus Leaving Certificate point incentives to attract school kids towards subjects of the “knowledge economy”, simply show them what all those chemicals can achieve in the right hands, or veins.

They already love Breaking Bad, why not show them what athletics can achieve if it takes a leaf from Walter White’s book and scrap any remaining pretence of innocence? Let us all accept and embrace the fundamental dishonesty of athletics.

In fact, given the amount of top pharmaceutical companies resident in Ireland, it might even increase our chances of winning an Olympic gold medal. From now on, any company wishing to avail of our low corporation tax must sponsor an Irish athlete.

This may even allow us to see the return of Lance Armstrong. Were we not all much happier when we bought into the myth of Lance as the cancer-curing cyclist extraordinaire? In this instance, openess and acceptance of his actions would trump all questions about how morally sound his actions were.

The many sports that we can file under the wide encompassing term “athletics” have one crucial thing in common that attracts supporters. When supporters watch a top-level competitive athletics competition, they should feel awe. They should be impressed by the extraordinary ability or fitness of the competitors.

Implicit in this awe and vital to the attraction of the sport is the spectator recognising that these athletes are completing feats that the supporter himself or herself would never be able to accomplish. They are competing at the height of their chosen fields. They are showing what the human body can achieve. It is the almost super-human excellence of Usain Bolt and other athletes that provides the attraction, the entertainment and the awe factor.

If we viewed much of athletics dispassionately, we would conclude much of it is boring. It lacks the drama and tension of team sports. It is no coincidence that you will never see hundreds of thousands of people piling into stadiums every week to watch people trying to run faster than each other.

Alas, give them a football and goalposts and you watch the crowds flock in their millions. The entire dynamic is changed.  Let us embrace the strengths that the “athletic” sports possess. Let us focus on the “wow factor” and how we can increase it.

This is a pragmatic option for the survival and the possible thriving of athletics as a popular source of entertainment for the masses. We know that many athletes dope. Let’s not delude ourselves any longer.

Rather than engaging in a tiresome cat and mouse game of better testing competing against stealthier drugs, why not accept the nature of the sport? We want to see fit people run really fast and jump really high. Many people feel we should not weigh athletes down with our moralising, they say we should be putting the spring in their step.

For example, the Dutch decided to legalise soft drugs and prostitution as they saw that the social problems were not going to go away by simply prohibiting them and then deluding themselves that they did not exist.

Athletes are going to dope, let’s not shroud it in darkness any longer. There are many top athletes whose doping is an open secret. Alas, libel laws prelude their naming and shaming. Do we really want to simply wait for the delusion to be shattered? Or do we want to be entertained, to be enthralled, by the wonderful feats that the human body can achieve, with the little help of a few pills and a few needles.

The World Athletics Championships in Moscow during the summer were somewhat overshadowed by the revelations that top sprinters such as Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell had tested positive for banned substances. Women’s sprinting didn’t escape the media’s wrath either with three time Olympic champion Veronica Campbell-Brown also found to be doping. Ironically enough, former doping offender Justin Gatlin of the USA ended up being Usain Bolt’s main competitor at the Games.

It is clear that doping takes away the level playing field in any sport, athletics included. If all athletes are on some performancing substances it would actually be quite entertaining, but in reality it takes away from the sport.

Let’s hope athletics doesn’t become the new cycling. None of us want to see the future unveiling of the new Lance. That Armstrong case taught us one thing; eventually cheaters get caught. Those doctors doing the drug tests aren’t dopes.