The uncertain future for athletics

“He’s saved his title, he’s saved his reputation – he may have even saved his sport,” gushed Steve Cram following Usain Bolt’s successful defence of his 100m World crown at the weekend. An even more impressive performance by Bolt in today’s 200m final will have elicited more cries of jubilation and sighs of relief from those who viewed the possibility of the hated Justin Gatlin dethroning Bolt with dread. For his part, Gatlin’s apparent refusal to display contrition for previous doping offences and uncooperative attitude with the media meant that the Fourth Estate wasn’t inclined to offer any help with his rehabilitation. What they were motivated to do was to hail Bolt as athletics’ saviour, a role he is well entitled to feel uncomfortable about adopting. But Gatlin turned out not to be the most convincing cold-blooded villain. A 100m World title was his for the taking until the presence of Bolt caused him to lose his concentration and his nerve. If one was being especially cynical, it could be noted that 9.80 was a reasonably quick time given the horror show of the last 15 metres, as Gatlin lost his form and then flailed his arms desperately, a technique that has not yet been observed to bring the finish line closer.

The Gatlin-Bolt duel has been the headline event of these World Championships, but there have been other eye-catching stories. Kenya winning titles in a wider array of disciplines than the long distance events they are traditionally associated with would typically be a cause for unconfined joy, but the joy is sadly somewhat confined by the news that dozens of their athletes have failed tests over the past few years, including two on Wednesday.

Some months ago, this blog made the observation that cycling is the one sport that the public makes allowances for. That cycling’s physical demands were unique in sport, and it was understandable for cyclists to take something just to get them through long hours of agony in the saddle. The current prevailing wisdom has it that athletics would never enjoy such leeway, and the vilification of Gatlin would appear to bear that out. Athletics, whose various events in track and field are designed to probe human athletic potential – there’s a clue in the name of the sport – has an assumed purity that most people have traditionally believed needs to be reflected in the preparation of its practitioners. However, the simplicity of the objectives in athletics is what makes it arguably among the most amenable of sports to performance enhancing substances, in that they can measurably improve performance. Drugs are a scourge in many other sports, but those that place higher premiums on skill are by comparison less sullied. It takes more than EPO and testosterone to play football like Messi or golf like McIlroy.

The dynamics of foul play at elite level require other factors to be considered to provide a truly holistic picture. Much of top-level sport is a vehicle for national chauvinism, a deficiency that was baked into the modern Olympics, and now applies to many other international events. Elite sportspeople are treated to hero worship by the usually fawning media. The fame and prestige that attends glory (and the subsequent glowing write-ups) feeds into the highly asymmetric rewards that are doled out in our “winner takes all” economic culture. In short, we have the perfect conditions for incentivising cheating. It is further commonly assumed that the public are naïfs, maliciously hoodwinked by cynical cheats who would strip us of our innocence. Gatlin is the designated villain now, as Ben Johnson was before him, but this is a heavily solipsistic exercise. The more we fixate on these characters and vilify them, the more we seek to cleanse ourselves. Similarly with the way many people look at history, especially its darker chapters, it takes the form of a personal absolution process rather than an actual attempt to understand universal aspects of human nature. In the case of doping in sport, we do not take responsibility for the culture we are partly responsible for creating. We do not take full responsibility for cleaning it up, either. If we were really serious about joining the battle against doping, rather than indulging in high-minded denunciation of individuals, we would be ensuring the World Anti-Doping Agency has a significantly larger budget than $30m.

The self-serving charade of shock and outrage is further exposed by the reality that the Gatlin’s past misdemeanours don’t represent anything like an isolated case. The emergence of growing evidence that Wada is not able to keep pace with innovations in cheating is hugely significant on its own for what it indicates about the true level of doping. Doping may only provide a barely perceptible improvement in performance, but for the elite, that is all that is required to create artifice. Sophisticated methods such as micro-dosing or thyroid medication (not yet banned, but which is increasingly decried) are among the means of stimulation of many athletes who are not being detected by the current regime. It means the proportion of athletes doping almost certainly extends beyond the 1-2% who are caught, and is more likely to in the region of 14-39%. Clearly a lot of people have been tempted to try and circumvent the rules, and it’s unlikely they’re all inherently bad seed. Many people looking at the inadequacy of drug testing, and who are also aware of the long tradition of hushing up positive tests in the sport, have begun to acquire a very jaundiced view. Some will declare that what we see doesn’t mean anything anymore. This is plainly a mortal fear for administrators in the IAAF, the IOC, and other organisations with noted doping problems in their sports. It explains their occasional willingness to tolerate their biggest stars cheating so as not to scandalise their sport.

There is, however, another view that is gaining greater currency. It is less dismissive than apathetic disbelief, but it brings with it its own dangers. It holds that if the authorities can’t guarantee a level playing field, they should give up trying and create a new level playing field by permitting a pharmaceutical free-for-all. Some people writing about this take it further, and question the intellectual foundation of the line currently drawn between fair play and cheating. Man is not created equal when it comes to sport. It is long established that some people have innate physiological advantages over others. Promising young sportspeople are in many countries directed towards the sport that best matches their physical attributes. This is hardly natural, but is of a piece with the medals table preoccupations of many national sport agencies. Furthermore, the intensity and scientific honing of modern training, taken along with the entire panoply of preparation methods (diet, sports psychology, etc.), makes the contemporary sportsman unrecognisable compared to the players and gentlemen who took up sport when it was codified in the 19th century. Taking this argument to its extreme, we are in effect creating new breeds of human. It holds that so much of what sportspeople do is unnatural that to react with outrage when they dope is to evince a peculiar moral selectivity.

While this line of argument is not entirely devoid of merit, this writer does not ultimately subscribe to it. There is a difference between improvements achieved in the gym and those in the lab. Increased levels of conditioning constitute an outward manifestation of mankind’s inquisitiveness and desire for improvement, and to deplore it is to reject the air you breathe and the ground beneath your feet, because there is no retreating from it. It may arguably be a problem if an athlete bulking up out of proportion to his natural size is subjecting himself to greater dangers by doing so, but that is a topic for another blog, perhaps. Besides, this writer isn’t committed to calling for a ban on rugby, though he is concerned about the implications for the way the game is now played.

This blog believes the main argument for pushing for clean athletics is because of its elemental nature. If cynicism about athletics becomes ingrained because of its repeated failings, the consequence will be a sporting landscape with distorted values and bizarre perceptions of prestige. There is not an established causal link between the decline of the reputation of athletics and other sports and the rise in popularity of mixed martial arts (cage fighting to you and me), for example, but I’m going to propose that the latter represents a form of social degeneracy that cannot distinguish between athletic pursuits of real value and those of dubious merit. The cinematic auguries for this kind of development are negative. Game of Rollerball, anyone?

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