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?

Addicted: The Medicalisation Of Bad Behaviour

Our ancestors used religion to ward off the things that scared them. We use medicine. There are few better illustrations of the perverse “medicalisation” of society than the claim that “video game craving is as bad as alcohol”.

We’re taking the human condition (passion, obsession, desire, pleasure) and trying to turn it into a medical condition.

The story is as follows: a PhD candidate at the Australian National University recruited 38 gamers who played an average of 10 to 15 hours of video games a week. Those who reported feelings of withdrawal or cravings to keep playing their favourite game were classed as addicts.

All participants then did a simple test: they were shown a series of differently coloured words and asked to name the colour, not the word, as quickly as they could. Some of the words were related to video games, and with those words the ”addicts” took longer to name the colour than the casual gamers.

The conclusion? Gaming addicts are as consumed by games as alcoholics are consumed by drinking. This is apparently ‘”some of the first scientific evidence that video gaming can be addictive”.

But let’s back up a bit. Ten to 15 hours of gaming a week isn’t very much. The Australian Communications and Media Authority says Australians watch about 20 hours of television a week.

Sometimes we might even suffer negative consequences from this indulgence. (“One more episode of Homeland? It’s already 10.30, but …”) We may get emotionally involved in a show. We might even crave it.

But you could say the same thing about any hobby. And nobody is suggesting the average Australian is addicted to television or fishing or woodwork. At least, not in any meaningful, medical sense.

Addiction is a notoriously slippery concept. In a 2000 study published in the journal Addiction Research, 20 senior addiction experts in the American Psychological Association were asked to define what they meant by the word “addiction”. The answers differed wildly.

Only half the experts could get on board a definition that included “physical dependence”. And that was the closest they came to consensus – except for a general dissatisfaction with the way addiction has come to mean more than dependence on chemical substances.

Yet this is the muddy, vague, uncertain, ill-defined concept that we seem desperate to stamp on every sort of abnormal behaviour. Without any firm foundation, the popular use of the word addiction is creeping into the scientific world.

Excessive shopping? Addiction. Excessive internet use? Addiction.

Yes, people can make a lot of money treating the choices as pathology. There’s always a pill available, or a specialist spruiking their professional services. But we’re as guilty as the medical profession here. The medicalisation of everything is comforting.

First, there’s nothing more appealing than a scientific veneer. If someone has a few too many boozy nights in a row, they don’t go easy for a while, no – they ”detoxify”. All those cultish detox diets offer little more than clean living. But they’re dressed up in pseudo-medical jargon.

Second, if something has a medical cause, it has a medical cure. This is an era of expertise and technological fixes. There is no problem that money and experts cannot fix. In January, a British MP called for the government to pay for the treatment of “those who suffer from internet or gaming addictions”. (But that’s not remotely silly compared with the Swedish heavy metal fan who is on disability support because of his heavy metal addiction.)

Medicalisation comforts because it suggests that our bad decisions are not our fault. Describing self-destructive behaviours as addictions is the ultimate way to shirk individual responsibility. Rather than agents of our own choices, we become passive recipients, preyed on by our surroundings. This is utterly dehumanising. One could ask why we’re so eager to dehumanise ourselves.

Sure, video game addiction looks a lot like a bog-standard moral panic. When someone dies from playing a game 40 hours straight – as a teenager did in Taiwan this year – commentators pontificate about video games, not, say, depression. Every pleasure has to have its dark side.

But society’s fear of addiction – our desperation to turn everything into a medical condition – goes to something deeper. We no longer burn witches; we diagnose them. Either way, we’re still chasing witches.

The Decriminalisation (Or Even Legalisation) Of Drugs

It doesn’t take more than a moment of thought to recognise that the rulings on which drugs are legal or illegal are governed by no particular logic.

No theory from medicine or philosophy or psychology demands alcohol, tobacco and caffeine must be legal while marijuana, cocaine, and heroin must be prohibited.

We cannot rely on distinctions about relative harm. Many experts have pointed out that marijuana is on balance less dangerous than alcohol. But this legal discord isn’t unusual. One British police chief controversially stated a few years ago that ecstasy is safer than aspirin.

Nor is the distinction between recreational or medicinal use any help. There are legal and illegal drugs that fall on both sides of that artificial line.

The generally accepted definition of the word “drug” offers no guide to legality either: “any substance other than food which by its chemical nature affects the structure or function of the living organism”.

Whether a drug is illegal is nothing more than an accident of history. Drug laws were not written dispassionately by a panel of the best medical and ethical minds in the world. The laws bear no relation to the damage those drugs could cause or their danger to society – they were not written to minimise harm or protect health.

Quite the opposite: the current schedule of drugs in the Western world has been driven by politics, expediency, prejudice, and sometimes outright racism.

Take, for instance, the prohibition that kicked it all off – the prohibition on opium.

In 19th century Britain, opium was so common as to be part of everyday life. It was an essential ingredient in tonics and pick-me-ups. One writer claimed in the 1870s that opium use “may indeed be said to have reached the height of Fashion”.

Few British conceived of a drug “problem”. Certainly, there were dramatic, gothic tales of addiction and vice. Thomas de Quincey’s novel Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is the most well-known. And there were some distressing, but not representative stories of overdose. But, culturally, moderate drug use was normal.

And the medical establishment largely accepted this. When reporting on the Royal Commission on Opium in 1893, the iconic journal Lancet described it as a “crushing blow to the anti-opium faddists”.

There was however, an “opium problem” in Australia and the United States. The difference was race. In both countries there was a significant Chinese minority who had brought their country’s opium smoking habit with them. The first war on drugs was a proxy for racial politics, not public health.

“Who has not seen the slave of opium?,” the Victorian minister of health asked parliament at the end of the 19th century: “a creature tottering down the street, with sunken yellow eyes, closely contracted pupils, and his skin hanging over his bones like dirty yellow paper.”

The issue here, clearly, was not opium but the Chinese.

Unsurprisingly this attitude towards opium was hard to separate from the belief Chinese migrants were undercutting Australians in the employment market. The visceral hatred of opium-smoking was the manifestation of resentment about labour competition.

It was the same in the United States. As the British writer Christopher Snowdon points out in his excellent new book The Art of Suppression, “if the government could not get rid of opium-smoking, it would get rid of opium-smokers”.

The 1862 Californian law Protect Free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor and Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese into California Act is self-explanatory.

One of the most prominent American anti-opium campaigners, Dr Harry Hubbell Kane, openly argued that those concerned about job competition should focus their animosity on Chinese drug use.

It is easy to tell a parallel history of marijuana prohibition, which was overwhelmingly used by Hispanics and African-Americans.

And in his book, Snowdon details the tabloid hysteria of recent times which has led to laws against “designer” drugs – synthetic concoctions which are better described as second-rate substitutes for safer, purer, and already prohibited drugs.

Do the political origins of drug laws matter? Absolutely.

The first international treaty on drug control was signed in January 1912. The war on drugs is 100 years old this year.

This century-long war has definitively and undeniably failed. There is widespread belief in expert circles that the world needs to move towards decriminalisation (or even legalisation) if we want to minimise the harm of drug abuse.

But the biggest cultural barrier to such reform is the current status illegal drugs have. In the sort of circular reasoning that only popular discourse can manage, the prohibition of drugs is mostly justified by their pre-existing legal status. Why are certain drugs prohibited? Because they are illicit drugs.

But that status has been set by politics and moral panics, not dispassionate evidence-based risk assessments. Drug prohibition carries the legacy of the ugly politics of the past. Once we realise that, we may start to rethink the justice of a war that is, in truth, not against drugs, but against drug users.