Maria Sharapova, Lance Armstrong and how to reconsider how we think of doping
How do we prefer our dope cheats? Do we want them to be like Lance Armstrong, whose sneering arrogance made him so easy to vilify once it became undeniable what he had done?
Do we want them to be like Justin Gatlin, who, like Ben Johnson, was not as repentant as we would like him to be about his past sins and who refuses to hide himself in some corner and wither away?
Or maybe we just want them faceless and anonymous, leftover relics from distant lands that were once outposts of the Cold War, preferably operating in a sport nobody really cares about, far away from mainstream sporting consciousness.
That was a trick question actually, because there is no other way we prefer our dope cheats. We want them to be convenient stereotypes that are easy to put away in nice and neat, clearly outlined boxes. Dopers are ruthless in their pursuit of serial winning, and obnoxious to any obstacle that gets in the way.
This is how we want them to be because it makes the whole question of doping a lot less grey than it really is. Doping is bad because Armstrong is so nasty and Amrstrong is nasty because doping is bad. That is a circle of logic that is impossible to break.
But every now and again pops up an example that does not fit these truths and we are afforded a glimpse into a complicated world. Like Maria Sharapova, who has come along now and hello, is there even a box we can put her in?
She is not how we popularly perceive dopers to be is she? OK, dispense with the digs first. Sharapova, a serial winner? Not in this golden age where Serena Williams and the Big Three in men’s tennis have redrawn the parameters of what serial winning is.
Sharapova has lost five of the 10 grand slam finals she has been in and 23 of the 58 tour finals she has played. Those are outstanding records, just that they are not serial winning.
Ruthless? Cold maybe and distant sure – on the circuit, she has been, at worst, a polarising presence and, at best, an athlete it is easy to appreciate and admire but difficult to warm to. But she is no Armstrong.
In a different sport a few months ago, another spanner was thrown in our perceptions of dopers. Until Yasir Shah pleaded guilty to taking a blood pressure medication on Wada’s banned list of diuretics and masking agents, in an admittedly short international career, he had been a squeaky-clean success story: cheery, gifted and no trouble.
And he was definitely nothing like his two countrymen who had been found guilty of doping a decade previously, Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammed Asif. It was easy to square their actions with the way they were.
Yasir? Not so much. His defence was that he had taken his wife’s medication mistakenly. Yasir’s positive result came from a sample taken in November last year; that was one month after he had injured his back, missed a Test but quickly recovered to appear for the next Test. The detail, to some eyes, remains relevant.
Like Sharapova, there was an element of innocence about the whole thing, that this was a slip and that the athlete had simply been careless. People have every right to be sceptical about the reasons Sharapova and Yasir claim for their positive tests, especially if Sharapova, like Yasir, gets a lesser punishment.
But what these cases should really force us to do is expand our thinking on doping in sport. A quick disclosure: I am, essentially, ambivalent about it.
I am uncomfortable with the kind of opprobrium that is heaped upon those found guilty of doping. I see, obviously, that they are breaking rules and for a society to function there exist rules that are not to be broken.
But ever since I spoke to Dr Bengt Kayser, a sports scientist in Geneva, a few years ago, I cannot pretend that there is no counter to the anti-doping pursuit of zero tolerance, a counter that says that the ultimate aim is unrealistic.
Ideally, of course, doping should not occur but for it to not occur, professional sport as we know it would have to turn itself inside out. Primarily, it would stop making the kind of demands that it does on its athletes, to keep turning up, to keep winning, to keep earning, to keep squeezing into a 10-year window a lifetime of earning potential. For that, sport’s place in the world would have to alter significantly.
“It is illusory to think that it will ever be solved,” Kayser said. “One of the big reasons behind that is that it is very natural for a human being who is engaged in modern sport, elite sport, to look for whatever ways to improve performance.”
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Updated: March 9, 2016 04:00 AM