Monday 24 July 2017

With illness so rampant in sport it's no wonder that many are washed up early

Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Cartoonist: Tom Halliday

Dion Fanning

In 1998 Turin magistrate Raffaele Guariniello began an investigation into his hometown team, the most successful club Italy has ever known, Juventus.

Investigators raided the club and found 281 different types of medicine. The club was equipped, they said, like a "small hospital". Few, if any, of the drugs were on any proscribed list.

Four years later, club officials were put on trial. They were cleared of administering banned substances to the players but, during the case, a pharmacologist reported that the club had systematically supplied its players with these prescription drugs. Fourteen players were given Neoton, a drug used to protect the heart, and also known as phosphocreatine (essentially injectable creatine).

They were also said to have taken Voltaren, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory which can increase the risk of fatal heart attack or stroke if taken long term or in high doses. Small doses were common enough in sport but the investigation heard that at Juventus it was "planned, continuous and substantial".

There were 23 players taking Samyr, an antidepressant. Antidepressants have been said to help athletes who were over-training, especially if that over-training led to fatigue and affected serotonin levels. None of those on Samyr were said to be displaying any signs of depression.

On the other hand, 18 years ago we didn't know as much about that illness as we do today, so perhaps those in charge at Juventus were visionaries, extending their pastoral care in ways that were beneficial to the players. Strange all the same that they didn't rely too much on talking therapies.

But none of this matters. Perhaps the Juventus tale was one of the greatest stories ever told. This bunch of players managed to put aside their difficulties. They forgot about the chronic pain which required large doses of painkillers. They managed to ignore their heart problems, and they overcame their mental illnesses to reach three European Cup finals in a row, while winning Serie A titles in 1995, 1997 and 1998.

I asked a footballer last week what would he have done if he had been offered meldonium, the heart medication Maria Sharapova took for 10 years. What would he have done if he was offered something which was seen as a remedy for exhaustion and would allow him to train harder, which wasn't banned and had no side-effects. He said he would get a second opinion. And if that opinion confirmed that it wasn't banned, there were no side-effects and it would aid his recovery? He said he would have taken it.

Most athletes who take substances - legal or illegal - to aid their performance won't have made $285m during their career as Sharapova has. Many of them might be struggling for a contract, but their decision to take substances may also deprive somebody, who is taking nothing, of a living.

Sharapova became an easy villain last week as she is rich, disdainful and probably lying. Her story was not designed to be believed but to fulfil its role in the theatre of bullshit that her press conference belonged to. Like so many things which take place in this arena, her story was just a collection of soothing noises to get her through the day.

Would she have been a more sympathetic character if she had come out and said, "You have no idea what is happening in tennis. Let me tell you what is going on in this sport."

Perhaps she wouldn't have got the touching backing of so many members of the tennis community if she had hinted that, you know, tennis might have a problem with medicalisation.

Instead, she received many messages of support at this difficult time, despite the implausibility of her story.

Andy Murray was less forthcoming. Why is it that he sounds so different to nearly every other tennis player? What has made Murray so clear-eyed about this issue when others are vague and ambivalent? I guess we'll never know.

Maybe he is just more intelligent than the rest of them. Certainly Murray has always been less tolerant of bullshit. As a Scotsman, he once expressed the entirely reasonable view that he would be supporting anyone but England in the World Cup.

This came as a shock to what we could laughably refer to as the tennis-watching public, or certainly the twee element of it, which was surprised that a man they had embraced as their great hope for a British victory didn't consider himself English when it came to football.

Murray makes a straightforward case when it comes to the use of medicine. "I think taking a prescription drug that you don't necessarily need, but just because it's legal, that's wrong, clearly. That's wrong. If you're taking a prescription drug and you're not using it for what that drug was meant for, then you don't need it, so you're just using it for the performance enhancing benefits that drug is giving you. And I don't think that that's right."

Who could disagree with this? Who could think that there was any reason to equivocate when it came to an issue like this?

"I've been working for 20 years; we could never imagine that it would be included as a doping substance," Sergei Sheremetiev, a physician with Russia's ski-jumping team, told the New York Times last week when he talked about the impact of meldonium.

We know the Russians are villains too so maybe we shouldn't be surprised by anything they say, but these things fall a little too conveniently into the realm of otherness. We condemn strange people with different cultural values who want to take an angina drug to aid recovery, or the rich like Sharapova who are different anyway.

But maybe they just have more money. Murray's is a noble and lone voice, but perhaps he is an anachronism. Sport is becoming part of the entertainment industry and its participants must compete with other forms of mass entertainment. The public might not be too concerned as long as the players entertain us. Rugby is thrilling and appalling because the players have weaponised themselves. Footballers must feed television's endless appetite for the game. Tennis players have to move from one faceless tournament to another. Some become fabulously wealthy. Some make a living and are washed up and broke by 35. But if they dope they are disgraced as well.

It's no wonder they all feel so ill.

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