Sports doping: let’s be honest, they’re all at it

Here’s a truth you already know, but don’t want to admit to yourself. Doping is endemic in sports. And I mean all athletes competing at the top level, in all sports: they’re all using substances to enhance their training and performances.

Consider the following three mutually inconsistent propositions:

A. Drugs testing in sports is a constant arms race against the dopers.
B. Only a few of the top athletes in any sport are dopers.
C. A small but significant number of top athletes are caught doping.

Why are these incompatible? If the testers are struggling to keep up with the dopers, hoping to occasionally catch the odd one out, and it’s true that only a few are doping anyway, then you’d see hardly anyone caught, ever. But C is a given fact – there are a steady stream of high profile busts – so either A is false and the testing regime is near 100% efficient, easily catching all of the few dopers, or B (the “bad apple” theory) is wrong, and most or all sports stars dope, of which the testers manage to catch out a few.

A, however, is what the authorities themselves say. The testers are constantly fighting (arguably losing) a battle to keep up with the development of new substances, and the carefully planned regimes of doping which avoid the testing. It’s only when an athlete screws up their drug schedule that the testers manage to catch them out. (It’s a common misconception that performance enhancing drugs are taken for the competition itself – most are training aids, allowing them to reach higher pinnacles of fitness, before competing without drugs, but with their drug-built body.)

So, knowing A and C to be true, we’re left with B. Ergo, doping is endemic in all sports. It’s inevitable: any athlete who takes a moral stance and refuses to dope will not be able to compete with those who do, and will never reach the international levels of the sport where we would hear of them. Young, ambitious, potential world-class athletes only have one choice if they want to have any chance of reaching the top. They must succumb easily to the arguments of their trainers and managers which help them justify that choice to themselves: everyone else does it, it’s only leveling the field, it’s still a fair competition when you all do it, once you achieve fame and wealth you can use it to do good…

Tyler Hamilton is a good example: his autobiography exposed the endemic doping amongst his group of cycling pros, including the allegations against Lance Armstrong which were later admitted as true. However, people might still claim that the problem was only with the US cycling team specifically; that other teams, and other sports, weren’t doing the same. I would call these people – those maintaining a belief in B, the bad apple theory – “sports idealists”, or alternatively “denialists” or “fantasists”.

What we’re long overdue is an undercover exposé of coaches, managers and sports doctors showing how much more widespread it is. I suppose the only reason it hasn’t happened yet is that the undercover hack would have to convincingly pose as a potential world-class athlete, which would be tricky without the junior and regional championship pedigree to back it up. Alternatively, you’d need a young, rising athletics star to decide to throw their potential international career before it even begins, passing up the chance at glory, fame and money that they’ve been working so hard towards until then, in order to reveal the systematic doping they’re being pushed into. It might happen: perhaps someone who realises they’re not quite cut out to make the very top, so decides to bring down the whole edifice instead. However, you’d need someone to do this for each and every sport before you’d convince all of the diehard idealists. With the numbers involved though, and the increasing attention to the issue, it’ll probably happen eventually.

I also predict a future split into traditional sports, defending the facade of unassisted effort, and unrestricted “open” versions in which doping and other methods are allowed. Unrestricted sports would have open use of performance-enhancing substances in training and competition. They might even, one day in the not very distant future, allow prostheses, like Oscar Pistorius’s and Alan Oliveira’s, but having replaced able-bodied athletes’ normal, healthy limbs. The ethos would be “take what you like, use what you like, even replace your basic human limbs with better versions, and see how fast you can go.” Since they’d be achieving incredible results, there’d be enough interest for it to be hugely profitable.

If you’re a diehard sports idealist, no doubt you’d dismiss the unrestricted sports, saying the achievements are assisted and don’t count. It’d be increasingly hard to explain, though, why you prefer the old, “pure” version of the sport, when it’s obvious doping’s still happening in your version too, just less honestly.

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