For those of us interested in sport the last 18 months have witnessed a steady stream of stories about drug-taking, blood manipulation and “cheating” (or doping) in sport.
The list is startlingly long. Champion athletes Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, tennis player Marin Cilic and Australian cyclist Stuart O’Grady were just some of the high profile athletes identified as “dopers”.
Last year 26 US football players were suspended for drug offences. In April this year doctor Eufemiano Fuentes was convicted under Spanish public health laws for being involved in doping and blood manipulation of a range of cyclists. The suspicion was that his client list also included high profile footballers, swimmers, skiers and athletes.
The recent spat of sport drug stories started with the headline-grabbing “Lance Armstrong case” in the summer of 2012 when the US Anti Doping Agency published a report that accused Lance Armstrong (pictured left), one of cycling’s best known figures, of “systematic doping and drug trafficking”.
When athletes and sportspeople are found to have doped, the dominant explanation is usually framed in terms of their moral failure. They have, so it’s claimed, let themselves and sport down. They have failed to match the Corinthean spirit that is, supposedly, at the heart of sport.
Yet such explanations are flawed. Sport is sometimes portrayed as a sphere of modern life which is free from the drives of capitalism. Yet sport is a deeply contradictory activity.
It is shaped by capitalism in myriad ways. Sport is based on intense competition which mirrors some aspects of the ethos of capitalism. Sport has close links with big business and the media. It intersects with the betting and advertising industries. And sport is immersed in nationalism and is shaped by its contact with the modern state.
Within sport winning is all. Although sports workers may have certain natural attributes and talents which they can exploit their talents are honed by hours and hours of repetitive practice. Sports workers are pushed to the very limits of their endurance and fitness. They over-train, distort their body shape and form, and compete while carrying all manner of injuries.
The competitive drive to get into the team, perform at the top or set the latest record means that sports workers are expected to do “whatever is necessary” to improve their performance levels. This has always involved the use of performance enhancing and recovery drugs.
But doping in sport only became a problem for the authorities in the 1960s. There were two factors pushing this. The first was a consequence of the entry of the USSR (and its satellites) into world sport in the post Second World War era. The USSR first appeared at the Olympics in Helsinki in 1952 – and immediately came second in the medal table. Four years later in Melbourne they came out top.
In the midst of the Cold War there were all sorts of complaints raised in the West about Soviet “shamateurism”. It was suggested that Soviet athletes were “not really amateurs” (ie unlike the US or British athletes who were “employed” by the army, by sports clubs or given places at elite universities).
But by the 1960s the focus shifted onto Soviet “cheating” through the systematic use of performance-enhancing drugs. There is now substantial evidence to show that there was systematic doping of athletes in the old Eastern Bloc. But recent evidence has also shown that the West German government sponsored a doping programme for its athletes as extensive as the programme in the Eastern Bloc.
In the Cold War climate the Olympics became a proxy war between the military blocs East and West. Governments and states expected their athletes to “do what was necessary” to ensure national prestige and a victory over their rivals.
The second element that brought regulation of drug taking into sport was the moral panic about drugs generally in the 1960s. Drugs were associated with the counter-culture. They were portrayed as part of an “unhealthy” life-style (that is physically, morally and politically unhealthy).
Thus moves to criminalise drug taking in general had an impact on attitudes towards drug taking within sports. When dopers are caught they are castigated and dropped from teams. Their records are scrubbed and they are abandoned as fallen stars and disgraced individuals.
But doping is not about the moral failings of fallen individuals. Doping is a result of, and embedded within, the competitive, commercial sporting system: a system worth millions to the top teams, clubs and individuals who will do what “is necessary” to ensure they win. The dopers are the rotten victims of a rotten system of sport that places winning and profit – in equal measure – at the heart of their system.
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