On Athletics: Amateurs posing the biggest doping threat

Use of drugs by non-professionals is becoming an increasing concern for authorities

World Anti-Doping Agency director general David Howman. Photograph: Getty.

World Anti-Doping Agency director general David Howman. Photograph: Getty.


Our physics teacher back in De La Salle had a theory that if everyone in China jumped up and down at the same time the earth would go out of orbit.

Who could have imagined nearly 30 years later that theory might be put to the test.

Maybe not strictly speaking, although there are a lot of people jumping up and down in China right now, given this is what most running actions essentially mimic.

Because like a lot of things, China is only now catching up on the western world in that opium of the masses also known as the big city marathon.

It’s happening on a suitably revolutionary scale, only with the full trumpeting of the Chinese government. Health and fitness was made a national priority in 2014, and as a result, distance running is booming: there were 134 marathon events staged in China last year, 83 more than in 2014, attracting around 1.5 million runners.

That number is set to rise to nearly 2.5 million by the end of 2016, which makes for a lot of jumping up and down.

Medical interventions

Not that it’s been entirely smooth running, as covering 26.2 miles rarely is.

Last month’s Qingyuan marathon, a city of 3.7 million people in south China, required a reported 12,000 medical interventions during the race, ranging from muscle spasms to severe vomiting. Many ended up in hospital, some in a critical condition.

Part of the problem was an item in the pre-race goody bag, which was lost in translation. Along with the usual T-shirt and blister pack was a bar of imported grape-scented soap.

Unfortunately, some runners mistook the soap for an energy bar and began chewing on it shortly before the start, with naturally sickening consequences.

But if there’s a lesson in there somewhere, it’s that even the most amateur runners will chew on anything if they think it will give them some sort of advantage, somehow enhance their performance, intentional or otherwise.

Banned substance

It rarely matters what the ingredients are, whether there might be a banned substance or indeed sodium lauryl sulfate.

It’s not like they’re going to be drug-tested either, so there’s nothing really to fear.

Actually that is the big fear in the anti-doping world right now, exactly what David Howman was talking about in Dublin this week when saying he’s worried about the “entry level and amateur athletes” just as much as the “elite athletes”.

Howman knows what he’s talking about: for 13 years he’s been director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) and, as he prepares to step down from that position in June, reckons the biggest threat to the integrity of sport is no longer from the top down, but rather the bottom up.

“Only that’s the area where there’s no testing,” he warned. “That’s the concern.”

Dr Una May, head of Sport Ireland’s anti-doping committee, has similar fears, and highlighted the large packages of expensive anabolic steroids and other banned substances regularly seized by Irish Customs, having being ordered over the internet, destined for amateur athletes for purely aesthetic reasons, not to gain any performance enhancement over anyone else except themselves.

In fact, Sport Ireland is already working with the needle exchange programme in Merchants Quay in Dublin, who is setting up a separate unit for steroid users: “We provide support when we can,” said May, “but it is a very big problem and we certainly don’t have the resources to tackle that, outside of organised sport.”

Indeed the whistleblower behind those Sunday Times allegations that UK-based Dr Mark Bonar had administered banned substances to some 150 athletes – including professional footballers, cyclists and boxers – was himself an amateur, reportedly a 39-year-old low-level cyclist who didn’t actually fail a doping test but rather refused to give a sample.

Again the fear there is that people like Dr Bonar are more likely to be working in that realm, not the professional one.

No one should need to go undercover to discover that.

Because another warning about all this could be found in a frightening discussion on Newstalk last Sunday, about “truth, hypocrisy, morality, and globalisation”.

Professor Chris Shilling from the University of Kent was on Talking Books to discuss The Body: A Very Short Introduction, and although he wasn’t actually talking about doping in sport, he might well have been.

Such is the individual obsession with body image in modern society, warned Shilling, “it’s in danger of getting out on control”, and part of the problem is that the medical and pharmaceutical world is happy to play along. And, with the human body now seen as increasingly malleable, so too does the capacity of science and technology to intervene “to reconstruct how we look, through exercise, diet, and also more radical means”.

Cosmetic procedures

Americans last year spent $13 billion on cosmetic procedures, the body now seen as a raw material to be worked on. The pharmaceutical industry is following suit, shifting from illness to wellness, with the average American now on between 11 to 13 prescription medicines per year for medical conditions that don’t traditionally qualify as being sick.

So, with images of these taut, terrific bodies everywhere, what chance is there of running a successful anti-doping campaign outside of organised sport, in the strictly amateur and yet mass participation level, especially now that China is catching on too?

The only hope there is that everyone becomes a whistleblower, that amateur athletes start policing themselves, especially if they see anyone chewing on a bar of soap.

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