Doping casts long shadow over sport - especially track and field


TIPPING POINT:For someone regarded as flaky during her playing pomp, Martina Navratilova has matured into a woman wise enough to point out that disability is a matter of perception: the tennis legend’s point being if you can do just one thing well, then you’re valuable to someone.

The athletic achievements of Oscar Pistorius make him priceless to millions around the globe. He symbolises how much a dogged refusal to be categorised by disability can overcome. All of which brings into even more stark contrast the tawdry awfulness of what’s happening in Pretoria.

There is enough barely concealed relish of the events of 11 days ago, when Reeva Steenkamp was killed, to make any more comment seem more than a little invasive. And in the context of personal tragedy, the contents of two little jars found in Pistorius’s bedroom are irrelevant. Violent death has a way of making the results of freely-entered into activity a small cause for concern.

But hands up those of you who heard those reports of testosterone and needles and weren’t surprised? Disappointed maybe, disillusioned perhaps, but not surprised.

Actually the first reports were of steroids, then testosterone. Then came reports they were a herbal remedy. Last night, South African media were reporting the bottles contained a herbal stimulant, to boost sexual energy. Athletes, though, are advised not to take it since it can boost testosterone levels.

So knowing nods about doping may wind up being desperately unfair on Pistorius. But right now, whatever the wrongs and rights, everyone gets swept along in the tsunami of weary cynicism about doping in sport.

‘Insider trading’

So much so that some of the condemnation of American heavyweight fighter Tony Thompson’s opinion last week that sportspeople should be allowed dope if they want to felt like going through the motions. Especially since Thompson aired his views with the always attractive virtue of not appearing to take himself, or what he does, too seriously.

“All of the money that we’re using to catch cheats should be used for other things. This is sports. This is not insider trading. This is not eliminating hunger in the world,” he said. “It’s just sports . . . It’s a person’s choice, such as abortion and other things we don’t agree with.”

Of course attraction doesn’t always equal substance. For one thing there is athlete health to consider when it comes to doping, although the oft-quoted stat of athletes willing to swap early death for success makes it hard to be charitable sometimes. More importantly though, take Thompson’s view to its logical conclusion and sport turns into meaningless spectacle. And while competition might always be trivial, it should never be irrelevant.

However, disillusionment with doping means the boxer’s candour makes it hard to pillory him too much as a bogey man. Too many other sportspeople have piously said one thing and done another.

It must be soul sapping to be wrongfully trawled into such generalisation. And there may even come a time when Pistorius can return to the triviality of explaining fully why there should be substances and needles in his home.

But right now the perception exists that athletes getting caught doping is like politicians getting caught lying, the only surprise is that anyone might be surprised.

Once upon a more innocent time, outlandish performances were explained away by faintly eugenic allusions to genetic freaks. Some athletes were apparently possessed of massive heart size, singularly long legs, and lungs the size of Botswana.

It was always a convenient and stress-free method of articulating why, for instance, the Rift Valley always produced exceptional distance runners; plenty reference to mountain air and material innocence and condescendingly poetic descriptions of African purity.

And then Moses Kiptanui comes out, points to wildly fluctuating performance patterns and asserts that doping is going on hand-in-glove with doping authorities happy to look the other way.

Having a grudge

Of course he gets invited to give examples, which if he does will see him in court, and so he gets dismissed as having a grudge and everyone forgets until the next time. Well, not everyone. The public might forget the specifics, but not the broad picture.

So, try pitching this week’s European Athletics Indoor Championships in Gothenburg on the back of all that. RTÉ are having a go, running live stuff on Saturday and Sunday. The BBC are covering some of the Friday too.

Maybe that’s their public service remit. Perhaps it’s because commercial stations can’t be bothered. Either way, it’s a tough sell.

Doping is a doleful shadow over all sport but especially track and field. Tony Thompson’s theory that regulation should be left up to athletes has been repeatedly shown to be unworkable. That leaves it up to an administrative class that has shown itself to be badly motivated – at best.

But for the sport’s sake the example of Svetlana Syreva – shot-putt bronze medallist at the 2004 Olympics, but stripped of her medal years later through retesting – should be used. Dopers are usually ahead of the testers but that doesn’t mean they should feel confident of getting away with it forever.

The late Christopher Hitchens once said a person’s life is summed up by how they coped with the various hands they were dealt. Athletics has a crap hand right now in terms of public perception, but changing that perception depends fundamentally on how that hand is played.

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