Drugs and Darwin Fuel Athletes

By Barnard, Matt | New Statesman (1996), September 25, 1998 | Go to article overview

Drugs and Darwin Fuel Athletes


Barnard, Matt, New Statesman (1996)


We expect our athletes to celebrate nature and the body beautiful, but we also demand that they win competitions. What's a jock to do, ask Matt Barnard

Florence Griffith Joyner ("Flo-Jo") died, aged 38, from heart seizure this week. Even before her untimely death, the shadow of suspicion hung over her glorious two gold medals and one silver at the Seoul Olympics in 1988: with her muscular form and husky voice typical of steroid users, and with her retirement announced abruptly in 1989, when mandatory random testing for drugs was introduced, there were whispers that Flo-Jo had used performance-enhancing drugs.

Flo-Jo's death will throw the spotlight back on to the debate over drugs in sports. Earlier this month another athlete was etching his name into the record books. The US baseball player Mark McGwire hit the most home runs ever in a single season, America's most prestigious sporting record. He is the first athlete in history to break a record while publicly admitting his use of performance-enhancing drugs. McGwire has admitted taking the drug androstenedione, which helps to build muscle and aids recovery from injury or exhaustion. The drug is on the banned list of the International Olympic Committee but is not banned by baseball's governing body, nor is it illegal. So far the use of drugs has not doomed baseball.

McGwire's chemically-aided race against the record book is credited with reviving interest in America's first game, giving it a renewed sense of value after the player strikes of 1994. As in many walks of life, unbridled success is able to sweep any latent moral misgivings neatly under the carpet.

Less predictably, however, the crowds lining the roads during this year's Tour de France applauded the cyclists as they swept past, supporting them despite the revelations of systematic drug-taking. The heavy-handed way the authorities conducted their investigation did little to win them support, and many spectators found it easy to empathise with athletes who had spent eight hours a day for two-and-a-half weeks slogging their guts out in one of the world's toughest competitions.

The moral crusade against the use of drugs in sport, like most moral crusades, is surrounded by myth. One of the myths is that fans won't pay to see drug-aided athletes perform, something that McGwire's example, and to a lesser degree the Tour de France, seem directly to contradict. It is said that more people turn up to watch McGwire warm up than attend most matches.

A second myth is that using drugs means that athletes don't have to work for their achievements. But, as Nicholas Pierce, lecturer in sport and exercise medicine at Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham, comments: "Athletes will always be pushing themselves to the limit; if you could help push them further, they will go further."

The former cyclist Tommy Simpson is often mentioned in the context of sport and drugs, as he was one of the first athletes to die as a result of taking performance-enhancing stimulants. What commentators tend not to mention is that he literally worked himself to death. He pushed himself so hard that his heart gave out. Whatever one thinks about athletes who take drugs, they don't lack courage.

It is undoubtedly true, nonetheless, that the idea of using performance-enhancing drugs is deeply disturbing to a great many people. John Whetton is a former Olympic 1,500 metres finalist and European champion and is now a principal lecturer in life sciences at Nottingham Trent University. He is very clear that chemicals and sport shouldn't mix: "Using chemicals to do what your body isn't capable of doing is cheating, but it is a form of cheating that is hidden and therefore it is a nasty form of cheating."

But McGwire is open about his drug-taking, and as has become clear in the aftermath of this year's Tour, within cycling the use of drugs is an open secret.

Yet why are athletes who secretly do altitude training not tarred with the same brush? …

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