Tuesday, 17 July 2012

“Two week drug festival on the Thames” Chapter 3

So what about the drugs?
Way back in the first Olympics of the modern era in 1904, the winner of the Marathon was helped across the line by two doses of strychnine and brandy given to him by an assistant. He collapsed as he crossed the finishing line - another dose would have been fatal. 
Ever since then so called sportsmen and women have looked for ways to assist their performance. 
Cheating was initially the first choice of the less than noble. It still has its place in the festival of running and jumping (see below) but drug taking has become the way to elevate a good performer to the level of the extraordinary. So much so that of the eight finalists in the notorious 100M final at Seoul in 1988, six have either tested positive for taking performance-enhancing substances or admitted doing so to various commissions set up to investigate the scale of the problem. It was not just Ben Johnson. Dennis Mitchell claimed that a beer and sex session had raised his testosterone levels inordinately high. The testers disagreed. The ‘Mr Clean’ of US Track and Field, Carl Lewis tested positive 2 months before the event and should not have even been there. 
The lengths people will go to to cover up their calumny is quite remarkable. One athlete was found with a condom hidden inside his shorts filled with a relatives ‘clean’ urine to confound the testers. Another went so far as to have ‘clean’ urine inserted into his urethra via a catheter just before a test. 
One of the more difficult concepts to grasp is that certain individuals are prepared to risk death to achieve fame. Taking EPO, sometimes referred to as ‘blood doping’ improves stamina. It is much favoured by cyclists and athletes involved in endurance events.  A consequence of taking EPO was the requirement to wake up regularly through the night to maintain a reasonable heartbeat. Otherwise as the heart naturally slowed down during sleep it could stop. Taking EPO also significantly increases the risk of thrombosis and stroke. 
Given such desperation and readiness to risk death in pursuit of flawed glory what can the authorities do?
Well they can connive. The Moscow games of 1980 were notorious for having no positive tests. A new phrase entered the sporting dictionary, the sink test. This is where a test is taken simultaneously (or synchronised) and one sample is kept separate to prevent contamination and fiddling. In Moscow it simply meant that positive tests were poured down the sink. This happened again towards the end of the Los Angeles games where several positive tests taken after the finals were similarly ‘sinked’. Didn’t want to upset the sponsors.
They can also go even further. The East German swimming team were fed a diet of steroids as part of their training regime on the orders of their communist bosses who wanted a validation of their egregious system. The cost in the failed health of so many athletes was a price deemed well worth paying. The recent remarkable improvements in many Chinese athletes were put down to being fed a ‘special soup’.  Oh yeah. 
One of the saddest effects of all this is what it does to decent sportsmen and women who try to do their best without chemical assistance. To train hard and well; perform at your best and then be beaten by rivals you know to have been on the sauce must be galling. Marion Jones had a remarkable Olympic record especially after she married a man who had ‘previous’ for taking enhancers. She was finally stripped of her titles several years later. To be recognised as the true champion as an afterthought in a newspaper column is not quite the same as standing on the dais and receiving due acclaim. 
Incredible improvements are a sign that all is not well. A sprinter knocking a second off his best time; a thrower adding twenty metres and a lifter raising many kilos more than before, are all clues that the pharmacists have been involved. The trick these days is to take masking drugs to obscure the presence of the enhancers. Or to take things under strict guidance so any trace has disappeared by the time the testers get at you. This explains why many major stars develop minor injuries prior to major events. It keeps them away from the testers. They avoid lesser events on the pretext of being injured and suddenly roar back into form at the major event. 
Having been a great fan of athletics in the days of David Hemery, ‘Lyn the Leap’ and Mary Peters, it now leaves me cold. Every record, every ‘great’ performance carries with it the question, “Are they clean?” My dissonance has not been helped by all these ‘my body is a temple’ merchants strutting their stuff either. Are those muscles rippling like frogspawn all their own work or has Dr Feelgood been doing his stuff? 
And it isn’t just the people! There are several examples of horses being artificially helped in the equine events. 
As for cheating much of this revolves around events requiring judging. Any event where a human being sits and decides who has done something better than someone else is prone to corruption. Boxing had a gold medal fight where the American landed 93 punches on his South Korean opponent and received barely 30 punches in reply...and lost. It was in Seoul. The judges were sacked but the Korean kept the gold. Gymnastics has had its share of bloc voting and don’t even ask about Ice-skating, Judo, Synchronised swimming, Diving, Wrestling and Trampoline.
So what to do? Recognise the trend, accept the inevitable and declare the Games to be open to all enhancements and skullduggery? Or continue as we are now and spread a veneer of fairness and decency over the cesspit that is major corporate sport?
Faster? Certainly.
Higher? Definitely!
Further? Not for this sports fan.

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