Saturday 25 January 2020

Only one solution left to doping in sport: legalise it

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

There's a film on Netflix that is getting a lot of attention, a documentary called Icarus which brings us into the dark world of doping in sports, brings us in a long way, and leaves us there.

It was made by Bryan Fogel, an amateur cyclist who decides to test the system by doping himself, and who encounters along the way a Russian scientist, Grigory Rodchenkov, who knows, as it were, how the sausage is made.

He knows, because he made that sausage for a Putin regime demanding Olympic gold medals - made the proverbial sausages to the highest standards of the famed Moscow Dry Sausage, if truth be told.

But truth comes dropping slow in that game, as slow as the slowest runner in the slowest race in the age before they started taking the rocket fuel - or at least the better brands of it which have reached such a state of sophistication, we may not know what the champions of today are using, until the bribes are being distributed for the hosting of 2032 or even the 2036 Olympics.

Watching Icarus, I'm not sure when exactly I realised that there is only one way out of this, but it may have been the part in which this Russian wizard was explaining the Byzantine system of urine management employed at the Sochi Winter Olympics by what we used to call the KGB. Essentially, they would switch bottles of clean urine for the dirty urine which the Russian athletes would have provided to the dope-testers, an operation of such extravagant crookedness, it deserved some sort of Olympic medal in itself.

Yes, I think I saw a way out of this, at that point, and also at the point when I started to feel sorry for the Russians who were barred from the Rio Olympics because of the state-sponsored doping regime - what a travesty of justice it was, to exclude a load of dopers on the ground that they were "state-sponsored", letting in all the others who are not sponsored by any state, as such, but who are sponsored nonetheless.

Sensing the unfairness of it, the IOC did the right thing, as is their wont, by largely reversing the ban on the Russians just before Rio. Now they could compete against athletes who were perhaps juiced up too, but not in that "systematic" way - just in another systematic way.

We are all drugs detectives now, and personally I have branched out into exciting growth areas such as football and rugby - I would mention tennis too, except tennis is strangely blessed by the fact that most of us don't really care about it. But for those who do, there are supernatural things to be seen these days at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows and Roland-Garros.

And to assist our investigations, the system throws out a "drugs cheat" from time to time, to pretend that something-or-other is working. Justin Gatlin at the recent World Athletics Championships was the "drugs cheat" being monstered, so that we could keep pretending that he is somehow exceptional, that others are not "cheating". So that everyone can be involved in this ridiculous illusion.

Which is how organised crime works too, drawing the civilian population into its maw so that eventually everything is corrupted and nobody can tell where the badness ends. But we have a fair idea of the extent of the contamination, which is large. And it flourishes, of course, in a culture of Prohibition. Which is where I see a way out of this, in the most direct way, by doing exactly what they did with Prohibition - they ended it.

Just as the main achievement of pursuing a War on Drugs has been the vast enrichment of some extraordinarily bad men, so this war on doping has been such a spectacular failure it has eventually become an embarrassment in itself - it seems that the more they are placed under surveillance the better they get, the sprinters and the rugby players - and the cyclists, who after all brought Lance Armstrong to the party, and who must be wondering why everyone is still on their case when there are so many other cases to be on: so many Lances who never failed a test either.

Grigory Rodchenkov is the embodiment of these supremely twisted arrangements, being the head of an anti-doping programme who was also intimately involved in a pro-doping capacity, who seems like a decent enough sort of a chap, unable to take the impossible strain of all that bullshit any more.

Watching his struggle for sanity itself, it is hard to believe that the authorities are still hanging on to this notion that if only the "cheats" can be rooted out, these sports will be restored to some state of goodness.

That ship sailed so long ago that they were probably still using the cat-o'-nine-tails.

And once you engage with the notion of lifting the prohibition on banned substances, you realise that there really is a way out of this, and that it has at least one remarkable feature - on the track and in any other arena, nothing will change.

Since most of the sports which we follow are already consumed by a doping culture, they will just carry on with it. In theory, I suppose that rugby players could get even bigger than they are at the moment, and someone might eventually run as fast as Usain Bolt. But given the substances which are currently available to the elite athlete, we are already looking at Peak Performance Enhancement.

Legalise it, and everything will carry on roughly the same, but without the bullshit - the institutionalised corruption, the astonishing waste of time and energy, and the KGB men running around backstage with bottles of other people's urine.

No doubt the wizards are concocting new drugs as we speak, but then they've always been doing that too. Because eventually this is not really a drugs problem, it is a human nature problem. And there's no way out of that.

It can also be said for athletics that it is largely unharmed by the gambling phenomenon - due to its relative unpopularity, the fact that it is not in our faces all the time, but comes out only for a few special occasions such as the World Championships or the Olympics.

This is not conducive to the development of a major gambling culture, which thrives more on your day-to-day obsessions - such as horse-racing or football - and which has the potential to be corrupting sports in ways that even the drugs can't reach.

In the most basic sense, it greatly increases the number of victims. If I am watching a runner who is on EPO, I myself am not on EPO and am thus unharmed in that way. But if I am betting on that runner, I may be profoundly harmed.

Indeed, for any punter, the drugs issue is not so important, because at least if the players are on drugs they're trying to win. They have no other nefarious purpose in mind. Inject a load of gambling into the system, and that ain't necessarily so.

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