Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Drug of Sport

This blog is about the seemingly ever-present drugs-in-sport issue. I guess it was prompted by the "bitter pill" of drug cheat Pakistani fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar coming back to play for his country without serving any suspension at all - the second disgraced drug-taker to do so for Pakistan in a matter of weeks (the other being Mohammed Asif, who even more revoltingly was promoted to vice captain). The pair were originally banned for steroid use, but their suspensions were overturned on a technicality - there was never any dispute that they tested positive and had the drugs in their system. It turns out that because the testing was done by Pakistan, and not the International Cricket Council (ICC), the ICC is powerless to act on the ridiculous over-turning (apparently based on the two not properly having it explained to them that drug cheating is not legal).

This sort of thing is certainly not limited to cricket, and even more certainly not limited to Pakistan. In Australian rugby league, a Melbourne Storm player by the name of Rodney Howe was famously caught using band substances and suspended for a year. Gordon Tallis, a barn-storming second rower famous for his honest and hard-working (and ferocious) approach to the game wrote in his book "Raging Bull" of an incident not long before Howe tested positive. Tallis had longed topped player polls of "the guy you'd least like to have to tackle" (they say if you tackle him, it feels like he's tackled you). In the incident, Tallis hit the very large Rodney Howe with a monster tackle, the biggest he could muster. Howe more or less laughed the tackle off and Tallis was left feeling like he'd been hit by a car. Apparently Tallis even considered giving the game away as a result, feeling that he'd lost the spark that made him such an enforcer.

When the news broke of Howe's positive test, Tallis was very vocal about how he felt cheated by a guy who took a shortcut and became a huge success as a result. Howe served his year-long suspension and made his comeback against, you guessed it, Tallis' team the Brisbane Broncos. Howe was a shadow of the former juggernaut that he was with the aid of the drugs, and was visibly upset on the field - partly because of his inability to inspire fear and control a game like he used to, but perhaps even more by the lack of respect from his fellow players (Tallis in particular took great pleasure in referring to him as "The Chemist" during their on-field encounters). Tallis took some criticism for this, but I personally think that he was well within his rights and if that's the worst abuse that Howe took upon his return he should count himself lucky! To Howe's credit though, he did (eventually) put his hand up and serve his suspension (which is more than can be said for other people mentioned in this article).

The Tour de France (or Tour de Farce, as it is increasingly becoming known) is another popular target for drug cheats. Entire teams have pulled out in previous years due to threats of race organisers to perform mass drug testing. It has been over eighteen months since a valid winner of the race was last declared, with the 2006 winner Floyd Landis being disqualified for testing positive for banned substances, along with the subsequently declared winners! It seems increasingly likely that no real winner will be declared for last year's race, with Landis still contesting his disqualification, and that we'll just go ahead with this year's event. It also seems likely that organisers will throw their hands in the air and not be so gung-ho in insisting on drug testing, letting the cheats have their way.

The last mention I wanted to make is probably the most well known case of a drug-related disqualification ever, and one which disappoints me more than any other because of the blatant double standards. The 1988 Olympic 100 metre final featured one of the best fields ever assembled, including Carl Lewis, Linford Christie and Ben Johnson. I still remember the fearsome image of an extraordinarily powerful looking Ben Johnson in the blocks at the start of the race. The gun fired and Johnson stormed away, winning the race easily in record time. Not long after, Johnson had tested positive (a fact which he does not deny) and, rightfully, disqualified from the race. This promoted the legend Carl Lewis to the gold medal postion. The only problem was that Carl Lewis had already tested position three times, to pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine in the months prior to the 1988 Olympics. Yet he was still allowed to compete. In fact, the only runner from that final who didn't test positive for a banned substance either before, during or after the Olympics, was fifth placed Brazilian Robson da Silva (in a time of 10.11 seconds). Personally I think he should be allowed to climb the dias at the next Olympics to receive his gold medal!

So what do we do about all these drug cheats? As long as there is elite sport, there are going to be people trying to gain an unfair advantage. Maybe the option is to have a "drugs allowed" version of these contests, where the winner is the team with the best combination of human, training and drug research facilities! Maybe a drugged up/drug free categorization instead of professional/amateur? Even "drug assisted" versions of world records! Don't get me wrong, I'd LOVE to see drugs wiped out of sport completely and it come down to a contest between physical gifts, hard work and preparation of competing athletes. Realistically this is never going to happen however, and with sporting bodies going soft on the cheats, even letting them off on "technicalities", it can only get worse.

That's How I'm Seeing It,



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