Sunday 25 September 2016

Doping: a keen eye for the completely obvious

Published 13/03/2016 | 02:30

'Over time, some of us have reluctantly abandoned that somewhat romantic approach, and are now regarding tennis, rugby , any sport which demands a lot of speed, or stamina, the way that libel lawyers regard a newspaper - everything is assumed to be a lie, until proven otherwise'
'Over time, some of us have reluctantly abandoned that somewhat romantic approach, and are now regarding tennis, rugby , any sport which demands a lot of speed, or stamina, the way that libel lawyers regard a newspaper - everything is assumed to be a lie, until proven otherwise'

She can talk with the precision of a diplomat, and walk with the poise of an acrobat, but it was the grunting of Maria Sharapova that told us who she was.

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"Grunting" would be the softest description of the astonishing noises that came out of her during a match, this shrieking that, on one occasion, was estimated to be "only slightly quieter than a chainsaw".

But the shrieking was not just a measure of her commitment to her own performance, or her desire to leave nothing out there, as they say. It was also an indicator of her attitude towards her opponent, displaying, as it did, an utter lack of what old-fashioned people used to call "sportsmanship".

There is no doubt that she used it as a form of distraction or disruption, or just to be a pain in the ass. And if she had been a normal, fair-minded person, she might have felt some need to tone it down, or just to acknowledge that she might be overdoing it. But she never showed a trace of this thing that, in everyday life, we call consideration.

Not out there anyway, in the arena. Not for a moment.

And mostly, she got away with it. Indeed, her horrible self-absorption did not, in any way, diminish her in the eyes of the multitudes, or of her corporate sponsors - she won, didn't she?

Yet, we are judging her now; we who hardly even belong to the same species. We who, for the most part, don't even care about the game that she played.

For most of us indeed, the one consolation of all this, is that it doesn't matter. Tennis is a part of our lives only during the annual bit of diversion at Wimbledon or the US Open, or if we are chronically addicted gamblers, punting all day on matches that might well be rigged - either by other gamblers or in the sense that the players are drugged.

We are disinterested observers in this, so we have the luxury of judging from a certain distance. We can even judge the commentators who seem to be in a state of deep denial about their sport, still droning that "99.9pc" were not involved in match-fixing, when the numbers that were already established showed a much different percentage.

To the outsider, tennis is so clearly crooked in various ways, it is a crime in itself that Sharapova is the only famous one who has been nailed. Which reminds us that we may have to revise our entire perspective on these issues, one that is based on an olde-worlde assumption that certain top-class professional sportspeople are doping, but others are not.

Over time, some of us have reluctantly abandoned that somewhat romantic approach, and are now regarding tennis, rugby , any sport which demands a lot of speed, or stamina, the way that libel lawyers regard a newspaper - everything is assumed to be a lie, until proven otherwise.

And if we are completely honest here, we have come to regard the corrupted nature of many sports as an intrinsic part of the entertainment.

We enjoy spotting the tennis player who is apparently roaring with energy after playing five long sets in temperatures of 100 degrees, and nobody passing any remarks on it except to refer to "all the work he's been doing on his fitness".

We look at the modern rugby player and laugh at his assertion that there may be some drug-taking in the game here or there, but personally, he's never come across it. We note that cycling seems to have an inexhaustible capacity for breaking its own records for shameless bullshit, still talking about "marginal gains" and "training smart" as if we were all eejits.

Which we are not, of course - though there are times when we choose to be, because the alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

First they came for the athletes, the runners, the jumpers and the throwers and the weightlifters, until no one believed a thing that they were seeing at the Olympic Games.

Then they came for the cyclists, and they're still coming for them, with perfectly good reason, and they'll be coming soon for a few more of the tennis players, and for the extraordinarily large men of rugby.

But when they come for football - that's when we will all be tested.

They probably should have come for football a long time ago, but perhaps it is the sport that is too big to fail - which is both a deterrent to investigators and an encouragement for the worst of men. It would involve a challenge, not just to individual careers, but to the most profound and uplifting belief-system of the age.

And of course, I have no evidence at all for this - though I do have a keen eye for the completely obvious.

I haven't personally examined the famous 200 bags of blood and plasma that have been in a freezer in Spain since 2006, but I have seen football teams routinely running around with tremendous levels of enthusiasm when their opponents, who are also highly trained professionals, seem to be shattered.

I see players recovering from injuries much more quickly than other players with the same injuries, I see teams showing astronomical levels of improvement and putting it down to team spirit...

But, no doubt 99.9pc of it is perfectly fine.

Sunday Independent

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