x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Let's level the playing field

In the modern world, if you are caught doping you aren't just cheating to win, but you become a verified bad person.

Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in the Seoul Olympics.
Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in the Seoul Olympics.

Naturally the mind has turned to doping in sport this past week and in particular it has revisited Ben Johnson winning the 100 metre gold at Seoul in 1988.

Three days later, he had been stripped of the medal and years later that sprint would be completely discredited and recorded, for posterity, as the dirtiest race ever because Johnson was not the only one doping; five others from that field would be tainted thereafter.

So quickly did Johnson's story go beyond just a matter of breaking a set of rules that it became clear it was never even about just breaking a set of rules. In fact, doping has never been about only that.

Instead, as Lance Armstrong has probably known for a number of years now and was reminded of this most forcefully last week, athletes who dope are not merely breaking rules: to the modern world they are revealing something far more about themselves, about which direction their inner moral compass is geared to.

In the modern world, if you are caught doping you aren't just cheating to win, but you become a verified bad person.

This is simplistic, plain-headed rubbish, a conclusion that can be reached even before acknowledging that humans are not really good or bad and that such classifications are impossible to define or distinguish.

And most gallingly, this kind of thinking overlooks the role of the world in which sports exists, as active colluder and collaborator.

How can this very world, for instance, ignore how much stock it puts not only into winners but the prospect of winning?

If Armstrong had been a serial non-winner of the Tour de France, where would he have been now? A nice, waiting-to-be-uncovered tale of a cyclist who fought off cancer and did pretty well? More complicatedly, where would his charity be? How much money would it have raised?

Does what he has all but acknowledged doing change the fact of his work for charity? Does it taint it? No.

Armstrong, according to the US Anti-Doping Agency, broke the rules of the game he was playing and so did, it is very likely, many others.

He will be sanctioned for that according to those very rules.

To go beyond that and frame reactions in terms of some constructed morality is overreaching of the worst kind (the most vivid example of how ludicrous we can get about doping in sport remains the hand wringing after it was '"revealed" that there was widespread steroid use in the unreal world of professional wrestling).

And how about those rules anyway? It is not as if there isn't reasonable debate out there about whether legislation on doping should not be considerably softened, if not entirely removed.

The research of Bennett Foddy and Julian Savulescu in Ethics of Performance Enhancement in Sport: Drugs and Gene Doping picks apart WADA's idea that doping is against the spirit of sport bit by bit; the use of the word "spirit" is where the moralising really begins.

The pair argue that current anti-doping policy cannot be policed and that it may actually cause greater harm to the athletes by forcing them to use drugs that are primarily undetectable and not necessarily safe.

They then chip away at the many myths we comfort ourselves with and moralise around; that sport without doping starts with a level playing field; that if doping were allowed, drugs and not humans, would decide contests; or that the spirit in which amateur sport is conducted should be the same as that in which professional sport is.

Their work can be countered of course and I'm still not completely convinced of the argument to remove legislation altogether.

But at least it strips it down, without veering into the kind of sermonising doping usually brings. And by its very existence it should show up the attempts to criminalise doping in sport to be as ill-thought out as they really are.

We should be expanding the debate about whether anti-doping legislation needs changing, not narrowing it to a question of man being good or bad.

There is another parting thought. Johnson winning that race was about the most explosive expression of athletic prowess I had seen until then.

It carried such charge and force that it spilt out of the television and gripped me within its adrenalin.

Even now, after all that was done to make Johnson out to be some malign, evil force, the power of those 9.79 seconds remains undimmed and untainted, magnificent as purely a spectacle, doped up or not.