Tuesday 25 October 2016

Why is it only sports people who are expected never to take drugs?

It's impossible to know if the athletes are clean, but that doesn't have to stop us enjoying the Olympics, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O’Hanlon

Published 07/08/2016 | 02:30

ACHIEVEMENT: Paddy Barnes leads the Irish team during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Olympic Games. Photo: Paul Gilham
ACHIEVEMENT: Paddy Barnes leads the Irish team during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Olympic Games. Photo: Paul Gilham

What can you say about the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio on Friday night? The lights… the spectacle... the pomp and circumstance… it was just so… yeah, wasn't it?

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Look, I'll be honest, I didn't watch it. No doubt it was great if you were there, but watching the opening ceremonies of sporting occasions is like tuning in to TV coverage of St Patrick's Day parades. In other words, utterly pointless.

The Olympics is about the contest, not the camp; the real business began on Saturday with the actual events. The shooting, the water polo, the table tennis and archery - and true, many people probably won't watch those either, they'll wait for what Rory McIlory infamously called "the stuff that matters".

This year there are even some saying that they won't bother watching the track, field and pool events either. Cynicism and negativity are in the ascendancy, with the Seattle Times going so far as to ask: "Are the Olympics dead?"

That's understandable. The facilities are unfinished. The locals are rioting at not feeling the economic benefits. Athletes are tweeting pictures of themselves sleeping under thick netting to keep out Zika-bearing mosquitoes.

The water contaminated with effluent has almost become a metaphor for an Olympics befouled by cheating and corruption. Every Olympics reflects the times and right now we're living through a pessimistic age. Terrorism and extremism has denuded our sense of safety. The tone of public conversation is increasingly rancorous and spiteful. This doesn't sit comfortably with the Olympic spirit of optimistic internationalism.

Though perhaps that only proves it's needed now more than ever. The founders of the modern games saw their mission as a moral one, in which all nations, big and small, were equal, and where racial and national differences could be put aside for a while in a common purpose.

For Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman generally credited with reviving the Olympics at the end of the 19th century, it was all about "increasing friendly understanding among nations, for the good of a humanity always more enthusiastic, more courageous and more pure."

Never has the enthusiasm been less evident, probably because there's far less purity around too. The widespread abuse of drugs casts a dark shadow, even in our small neck of the woods, with news that an Irish boxer has tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance.

By the end of the first day, a Cypriot weightlifter and an unnamed Greek competitor were on the plane home too. No wonder there's a common perception that they're all at it. That no one is clean. That no one is playing by the rules.

That's unfair. There are still athletes who resist the temptation, either through an ethical belief that sport should be clean or from a desire to protect their own well-being, because steroids and other drugs enhance performance far more than they do health. Anabolic steroids contribute to a wide range of life-limiting conditions, especially at the higher than medically approved doses which athletes must take to gain the benefits.

Nonetheless, it's not only spectators who think all athletes are taking drugs. Surveys of athletes show that they think most of their peers are doing it too. The infamous 100 metres final in Korea in 1988, won by Canadian Ben Johnson, still stands as emblematic of the drugs problem.

Of the top five finishers in that race, only one has never failed a drugs test in his career. Johnson's coach freely admitted using steroids and basically used the "everyone else was doing it too" defence. Who's to say he was wrong?

It might even be that there's no point trying to stop them any more. The only requirement of sport is that there should be a level playing field. Of course, there isn't one, because money instils advantage too. But allow drugs and a level playing field of sorts would return. Every athlete could choose what risks to take.

This might disadvantage those who still refuse to do it, especially in short distance races where the winning margins are so minuscule, or in sports such as weightlifting where competitors are asked to do what is physically insane; and it would lay sporting authorities open to the charge that they were allowing athletes to ruin their bodies for our fleeting entertainment.

Nonetheless, we live in a society where people use drugs for all manner of good and bad reasons, so it's probably naive to believe sport can or should be immune.

Doctors hand out antibiotics and antidepressants like sweeties. Women panicked by a few wrinkles willingly inject their foreheads with Botox - which belongs to a class of drugs identified by the US Food and Drug Administration to have caused "adverse reactions" and even death in some patients. A survey in Ireland recently found that 34pc of students have taken a substance without knowing what it was.

Meanwhile, we're all drinking, the nagging experts tell us, like proverbial fish.

How ironic that so many viewers will be sitting at home on their sofas, watching the Olympics with a six-pack of beer on the floor beside them, while bemoaning athletes for being chemically enhanced. Is it really morally inferior to use drugs to be the best in the world, rather than to self-medicate out of misery or stave off the signs of ageing or just to have a good time?

Only sport is expected to live up to this high standard. Narcotics have been performance enhancing for musicians ever since Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix doped themselves to greatness. Should they all be required to be as squeaky clean as choristers?

Scientific studies have also shown that beta blockers can have a huge effect on combating stage fright among classical musicians. None of this is illegal or held to invalidate their accomplishments.

Trying to enforce unattainable ideals is what leads to widespread doubt. Spectators and athletes alike can never know which races or contests they're watching are truly clean, so the suspicion always remains. If athletes could take whatever they liked, and we gave up trying to stop them, sport would go back to being what it's really about - finding who's the best/fastest/strongest man or woman.

Sitting there on our sofas, there's ultimately nothing we can do about drugs in the Olympics anyway. We're not on the board of the doping agency, we're not policy makers, and the only decision we have to make is whether we're going to enjoy the Games or not. Refusing to get fully behind the Rio Olympics because it's been tarnished by a few scandals is a self-punishing act whose only effect would be to deny ourselves the pleasure of the moment.

I still vividly remember watching on TV as Michelle De Bruin Smith won her three gold medals in the pool in Atlanta in 1996. There was palpable excitement in the country at an Irish sportswoman being the best in the world. True, it all went pear shaped when, two years later, she was disqualified for tampering with a urine sample and subsequently lost her appeal against a ban - though she wasn't stripped of her medals, and still vehemently denies ever having cheated.

Whatever the truth, her victories in Atlanta still rank among the most memorable in Irish sporting history, and I wouldn't want to have missed them for the world.

Without opening yourself up to the possibility of sharing those rare, special moments, we'd never have them at all.

Most of us fervently want to believe that Irish men and women can run or swim or ride faster or jump higher or sail better or shoot straighter than any of their opponents in Rio, and to do that simply means making a decision to shelve the negativity, park the cynicism, and just get behind our athletes for the next two weeks and a bit in the right spirit. The suspension of boxer Michael O'Reilly shouldn't diminish that electric anticipation one jot or iota.

Chances are that the Rio Olympics will be amazing. The city will be bankrupt by the end of it (it took Montreal 30 years to pay off its 1976 debts and Greece probably never will), but there's nothing we can do about that either. The only thing we can do is choose whether to sulk or celebrate. Put like that, there's only one possible answer.

In the words of Pierre de Coubertin, "may joy and good fellowship reign".

The Guardian's Marina Hyde may say it's the spectators who need to be doped up to the eyeballs these days in order to believe in the Olympic ideal. But if mindless optimism is a drug, then it's one we should all be willing to take for the next few weeks, because the only side effect is that we'll have a good time. And if we come back with a few medals too, all the better.

Sunday Independent

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