Forget Drugs – There’s Nothing Natural About Modern Athletes

When the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) brought down its report into performance enhancing drugs in Australian sport, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced she was “sickened” by the revelations. Justice Minister Jason Clare used the word “disgust”.

Sickened and disgusted. Visceral reactions. It’s easy to dismiss the Government’s extreme response to the ACC report as mere political expediency. But the reaction – not just the Government’s, but across the press and public – suggests something deeper. We have elevated the anti-doping crusade into a quasi-religious battle between good and evil. It’s ideological.

Spectators and publicists have always wrapped sport up with notions of purity. The people who revived the Olympics believed that nakedness of Ancient Greek athletics was an expression of that purity. In the early 20th century purity and sport took a creepy, racialised form.

Our modern ideals of purity are more benign. We extol natural fitness, health, and sportsmanship.

Doping feels like a direct attack on these ideals. It is artificial, seems dangerous and it is kept secret.

But that attitude is only recent. Until the 1960s, drug enhancement was integral to sport. It had been that way for nearly a century. The first experiments with doping – the use of coca in long distance walking – date from the 1870s. Early drug use was optimistic. Science had the potential to increase strength and stamina. Scientific progress and athletic achievement went hand in hand.

There’s a great story about an early effort at doping by the Arsenal football club. In 1925, Arsenal’s manager, Leslie Knighton, was visited by a “distinguished West End doctor” who offered “courage-pills” (probably amphetamines) for an upcoming game against West Ham United. Having been reassured the pills were safe, Knighton accepted.

Just before the match began, Knighton’s team took their pills. The problems began when the referee postponed the game due to thick fog.

Getting the boys back to Highbury that afternoon was like trying to drive a flock of lively young lions.

The entire team was violently restless and impossibly thirsty. The next week, the team dutifully swallowed the pills again. The match was again postponed. Once more came edginess and thirst. When they finally played West Ham, the energetic, drugged up team managed a nil-all draw. In the rematch, the poor old Arsenal players rebelled. No more drugs.

The only reason we know about the episode is because Knighton included it in his 1948 memoir, under the chapter title “I Dope Arsenal for a Cup Tie”. At no time did Knighton have any ethical qualms. Neither, it seems, did the team. They had no sense that this was cheating. But they wanted to keep it secret nonetheless.

Knighton saw the pills as a variation on normal practice. Doping was like any other psychological or medical inducement – another way to give his team “hearts as big as bullocks”.

Bertolt Brecht said that “Great sport begins where good health ends”. Athletes subject themselves to brutal fitness and exercise regimes. We isolate talented children from a very young age, direct their life towards training and competition, control what they eat and how they exercise, and send them to specialist academies where we deny them the usual pleasures of growing up. It is ludicrous to claim that the highly-engineered extremes of modern competition are in any way “natural”.

Indeed, one of the most pernicious myths in the anti-doping crusade is that drug use destroys the level playing field of competitive sport. In his book A History of Drug Use in Sport: 1876-1976 the sports academic Paul Dimeo pointed out the entire purpose of training and preparation is to make that playing field uneven.

When does a natural substance such as oxygen, altitude or even testosterone become cheating? How is taking a chemical substance that much different from using specialised equipment, psychological counselling or team tactics?

As Leslie Knighton understood, an advantage gained by doping is a question of degree, not kind. It’s just another way to get an edge.

The tide turned in the 1960s. “Doping is an evil,” proclaimed the anti-doper Sir Arthur Porritt, “it is morally wrong, physically dangerous, socially degenerate and legally indefensible”.

The campaign against drug use was a campaign to raise the status of sport to something impossibly noble and moral. Drugs weren’t the only thing these anti-dopers believed had corrupted the sporting ideal: commercialism, professionalism, and an obsession with personal glory were also undermining sport’s essential purity. The anti-dopers wanted sport to be a reflection of an ideal world of health, morality and virtue. One of the charges against female athletes using drugs was that doping denied their femininity.

Dimeo argues the anti-doping ideology is deeply hypocritical. On the one hand we want athletes to sacrifice their lives in the pursuit of victory and record-breaking. Elite competition is destructive, all-consuming. But then we demand they know exactly when to stop, that they know what risks they should not take with their body. The old fantasies about purity and sport have been turned into systems of control. The crusade against artificial stimulants has been imposed from above by sports bureaucrats who want to regulate the moral choices of athletes.

One legendary Belgian cyclist of the 1950s, Rik van Steenbergen, said after his career that “there are no such things as supermen. Doping is necessary in cycling.”

Throughout the 20th century many riders have argued that professional cycling is so punishing it would be virtually impossible without performance enhancement.

Any sport can make whatever rules it likes about drug use. But let’s get off the high horse. We insist that athletes stop at nothing for our entertainment. Why the horror when they do exactly that?