Ian O’Riordan: War on drugs has reached dangerous tipping point

Testing times for sport with some calling for legalisation of performance-enhancing drugs

There is  increasing evidence that the war on drugs is no longer limited to the professional sport. Photograph: Getty Images

There is increasing evidence that the war on drugs is no longer limited to the professional sport. Photograph: Getty Images

 

You know our so-called war on drugs has reached a dangerous and terrifying tipping point when it seems more people are calling for the legalisation of performance-enhancing substances, as opposed to the continued banning of them. Have things got that bad? 

“Well, have you read Shooting Up?” my accountant asked me during the week, sipping on a glass of cider, looking out over the calmly panoramic view of the city that only The Blue Light can offer.

I’ve said it before but it was one of those rare evenings which make living up the Dublin Mountains seem very wise indeed, unlike that feeling of complete madness you get during the winter. 

Turns out Shooting Up has little to do with our so-called war on drugs. It’s a coldly sober history of drugs and war – although his comparison is surprisingly justified.

My accountant has always had an edge on this subject (including the introduction of performance-inhibiting substances for athletes caught doping) and he’s certainly not alone in thinking this is a war that can never actually be won. 

There is no mention whatsoever of sport in Shooting Up, although there doesn’t need to be: the old sport-as-war metaphor is a natural backdrop to the various tales of human conflict described in the book, and the role drugs has played in them – from Vikings charged up on magic mushrooms to the use of narcotics in controlling child soldiers in the rebel militias of contemporary Africa. 

In the end, it seems, modern military simply moved on from the unauthorised consumption of drugs to the actual prescribing of them. Even Hitler, initially opposed to the Anglo-American bohemian decadence which he believed drugs represented, ended up hooked on opiates, while German soldiers were eventually prescribed the “assault pill” pervitin, an early version of crystal meth.

Maybe, just maybe, the use of performance-enhancing substances in sport is less about gaining an edge on your opponents and more about being suitably armed up for the sort of human conflict which any competitive situation presents. It might help explain why it’s become so systematic in countries such as Russia. 

Either way, these are testing times, especially given the increasing evidence that this war on drugs is no longer limited to the professional end of sport.

The Guardian ran an interesting piece during the week highlighting the now “endemic” use of performance-enhancing substances within amateur sport, and not just the obvious ones, such as cycling and athletics. 

Anonymous arenas

This has almost nothing to do with gaining an edge on your opponents, but rather cheating on oneself, in such anonymous arenas as Strava, the fitness social network – and who on earth should care about that?

The only problem is they’re further blurring the line between what should and shouldn’t be banned, because for them there is no line. That in turns begs the question of whether or not this is becoming a futile war. 

There’s an increasingly strong academic input to this question too. Professor Julian Savulescu, a philosopher at the University of Oxford, has spent more than a decade arguing that it’s time to allow athletes use performance-enhancing substances, including steroids, EPO, the whole lot: only those found with unsafe levels would be banned. Part of the philosophy behind this? If everyone is doping, then it isn’t cheating – it’s levelling the playing field. 

Savulescu is quoted in an article in this month’s Men’s Health magazine, where he further outlines his philosophy: “Doping is not against the spirit of sport,” he says. “If you’re taking steroids and somebody else isn’t, that is unfair. However, if you allow people to take the same doses of steroids – within safe limits – that wouldn’t be unfair.” 

Another part of this philosophy, it seems, is that the banning of performance- enhancing substances has become so hypocritical as to make it unsustainable.

Given the constant evolution of sports science, any athlete looking to enhance their performance can probably put their hand on heart and swear they’re not taking any banned substances, simply because the substance isn’t yet banned.

Or, for every banned performance- enhancing substance that comes as a pill, they can just as easily find one which comes as a plant, or indeed as thin air itself, and is therefore not banned.

The old line that doping in sport, like crime in society, can never be entirely eradicated, is being slowly worn down too, by those who maintain there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to maximise human performance. 

Dangerously detached

Still, it all makes for a dangerously detached argument, as much as a terrifying one, because most of the people making it, who reckon sport is damaged beyond repair, particularly athletics, simply can’t fathom the very essence of it. 

So they could view it as close to the tipping point, or they could spend just an hour or two at the Irish Schools Track and Field Championships in Tullamore, where all day today, for nine hours of non-stop running, jumping and throwing, across the 120 events, there will be ample and undeniable evidence that there is at least one battle in this war on drugs which can never be lost.

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