It’s not about the dope

Is Lord Coe, former UK middle distance Olympian and current IAAF president, channelling his inner Captain Renault, the corrupt policeman in Casablanca who was “shocked, shocked to find that gambling” doping seems to be endemic among elite athletes?

After his earlier denunciation of whistleblower allegations as ‘a declaration of war against my sport’, the damning evidence of systemic cheating and lax oversight has forced him down a predictable path of denial: messenger shooting; deflection; the old minimisation tactic of pronouncing the whole affair as a Soviet Russian problem, and finally grudging admission.

He was wise to suspend Russia from international competition, particularly after his wisdom and judgement have been questionable recently, such as when he heaped praise on his predecessor Lamine Diack, only for him to subsequently come under formal investigation by French police.

Yet the time for drawing a line under things and hoping they go away is surely over. The cliche ‘tip of the iceberg’ was never more apt than now. As a wag from the world of cycling put it, “athletics is currently where cycling was about ten years ago”. Who then is the Lance Armstrong figure?

Is it Usain Bolt? Jamaicans fume about such accusations, but let’s look at the evidence. It is claimed that Bolt has never failed a test. Well, neither did Lance, until it was revealed much later that he had, but that there had either been a cover-up or a dubious ‘excuse’ had been proffered and accepted. Indeed, Lance was only really nailed by eyewitness testimony. The tests are so far behind the curve of desginer drug improvements that only the careless tend to fail now. And oh look, there are rumours swirling around Jamaican athletics that their testing policies have been woefully inadequate at best, and non-existent at worst. Another one for Coe’s bulging in-tray. Then there are the other sprinters, such as Tyson Gay, who have since been banned for doping. I get that Bolt could be freakishly good, but how on earth can someone consistently pulverise a field full of dopers and not also be doping himself. It makes no sense.

That muscle tone. Hmm…

Lance went from being a consistently mundane peloton rider to a dominant champion in the space of a year or two. Bolt ran a solid but unspectacular 10s for the 100m for several years until he managed to get his PB down to 9.76 within a year before breaking the world record twice in quick succession. Such dramatic improvements in performance are statistically astonishingly rare, and a red flag for PEDs. What makes it worse is that when Tyson Gay failed his test, Bolt was the first to demand that his rival be banned. Carl Lewis constantly attacked Ben Johnson for his doping in 1988, without a trace of irony or shame, since he too was later revealed to have failed a test in practice which was hidden by US Track & Field. Even Paula Radcliffe, the girl-next-door British marathon heroine, has been under a recent cloud over allegations revealed inadvertently by a British MP that she had suspicious blood values, a hallmark of EPO use. If there is a skerrick of truth in them, it would make Paula’s career-long vehement critcisms of ‘EPO cheats’ seem especially poignant and hollow.

This is all horrible, but I can no longer embrace the fantasy that professional sportspeople are clean as long as they pass doping tests. Put simply, the doping science is so far ahead of the testers, if you have the right money, that the higher profile the athlete, the less likely they are to get caught, as reformed doping maestro coach Angel Heredia spells out here.

I really really hope this pic never gets tagged as irony or hypocrisy…

It is possible the fog of doubt might never really be lifted, and that elite athletic sports might be met with ever greater cynicism and incredulity. Yet that is no reason to adopt the daftest suggestion doing the rounds: legalisation of PEDs. Chris Smith outlines a simple version of the argument here, but the proposal is sheer mentalism.

Myth One: if they are all on drugs, then the one with the most athletic talent and ability will still win.

Er, no – see Armstrong L. above. Lance’s success was largely due to being part of a sophisticated team doping effort with the best regimen involving cutting-edge human growth hormone and EPO. The champions would be those with the money to get the very best drugs and drug programmes: a big stride away from meritocratic endeavour. It will lead to an arms race, which leads on to…

Myth Two: If they are all doping, it will be a level playing field once more.

Nonsense. Elite athletes are constantly searching for an edge. If certain PEDs are allowed (at levels deemed to be of low harm and risk to athletes), athletes will simply look for the next generation of PEDs to gain a further edge. Top athletes would undoubtedly risk death in pursuit of their goals and dreams, given the almost self-destructive intensity they apply to physical exertion in training. The obsessive ultra-competitiveness of elite athletes is beyond mortal ken.

Myth Three: banning them is a moral stance, surely? If people want to pay to watch juiced, consenting athletes perform impressively, where is the harm?

We would never know the extent of the advantage of one athlete’s cocktail over another. Furthermore, the most edge-creating PEDs necessarily push the boundaries of human physiology. The GDR doping programme of the 70s and 80s has left its sporting heroes with serious health issues. Flo-Jo’s stunning women’s sprint records from the mid 80s have never come close to being broken, and the suspicions about whether she was clean were inflamed by her sudden early death at 38, underlying the dangers faced. If research suggesting that human growth hormone may be carcinogenic proves valid, and given that LA began taking PEDs before his cancer diagnosis, it would be a just and damning final indictment on one of sport’s most odious bullies.

All the more reason, then, for me to conclude by celebrating the life of a talented athlete, whose life was cut short this week not by PEDs, but by the health conditions he has struggled bravely with since adolescence. His star never burned as brightly as that scintillating 1995 debut. Jonah, RIP. Mike Catt, Ouch!