HAVING raised here last week the key question facing anti-doping agencies regarding the balance to be struck between dealing with cheats and ensuring that the health of athletes is protected, it was opportune that Dick Pound, one of the foremost experts in this area, was in town that night to provide his take on the subject.
Appearing at the University of Stirling to give a lecture entitled “Doping in sport: Is there a way forward?” on what was his first visit to Scotland, the former President of the World Anti-Doping Agency was – with his successor Craig Reedie, a local boy in these parts, in the front row of the audience – at times challenging in his message to the authorities and could teach modern politicians a thing or two with the directness of his responses in the Q&A session that followed.
However, in the context of the specific issue of assessing just why some medicaments are on the banned list and others are not, his explanation of the parameters was particularly telling, not least because so many of them are not illegal in any other walk of life other than when competing in sport.
By way of reminder, the example cited in last week’s column was the new demon drug meldonium that has seen most notably Maria Sharapova, but many East European sportspeople, facing lengthy bans for taking a substance that was not on the banned list until the very end of last year. The key point is that on the one hand there is little if any publicly released evidence of this drug being harmful to health, whereas it is designed to improve cardiac performance at a time when a string of young athletes have, in pushing themselves to their limits, suffered disastrous heart problems.
Some have sought to deify Pound and he seems driven by the right motivation, his principal premise being that clean athletes must be protected; with which no right-minded sports lover can quibble. However, his definition of what should be identified as dirty must still be challenged.
“Any substance or method on the prohibited list is there because it’s been determined to fall within at least two of the following three criteria: it is likely to be performance enhancing; it’s likely to be damaging to the health of the athlete; and it violates a defined term called ‘the spirit of sport’,” he stated.
Again that might seem reasonable, but to the first of those points there are many substances that people take ahead of sports participation that they believe to be performance enhancing which are not on the list.
The second seems key, because what grabbed our attention in the first place was increased awareness of the way athletes were being affected in later life by the chemicals that had been put into their bodies.
However most of us have, at one time or another, battled with religion’s weird Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and while we can pretty much conjure up an image of the first two the third one is rather more difficult for all bar the most devout to buy into, an unformed being that somehow flits about, interfering in matters as and when it best suits theologians.
‘The spirit of sport’ has a similar feel to it since it is so difficult to define with any sort of precision.
Consider the different treatment of speaking back to officials, goading opponents, simulation and assaulting opponents by an array of mainstream sports and we see how arbitrary a term ‘spirit of sport’ becomes. Since those who define as and when its relevance is invoked are administrators of bodies that have almost all been blighted by deep-rooted corruption, it requires a huge leap of faith to believe that it has any relevance whatsoever, not least when, as Pound amusingly put it, WADA continues to have such difficulty in “attracting the attention of FIFA”, governing body of what is arguably the world’s favourite sport.
The biggest issue facing anti-doping bodies is that, having witnessed the damage done to the likes of athletics, cycling and tennis by letting the testers in, there is increasing evidence that administrators in many sports – including some of those in which doping would be most beneficial to performance – are actively seeking to curtail the involvement of anti-doping agencies in order to minimise the risk of reputational damage.
As they seek to make their case to have stronger powers of intervention it seems reasonable to suggest that since some of the pharmaceuticals they prohibit are otherwise legal, WADA and its subsidiaries must focus on the question of the misuse of any substance that cause long term damage to the health of sportspeople which would surely include the likes of alcohol and tobacco as relaxants in some activities.
That case depends on the appropriate use of science, as opposed to reliance on blind faith in those self-interested demi-gods who too often seek to apply the spirit of sport in accordance with their personal tastes and agendas.