Forget the silky seduction of pro sport, it’s time we saw it for what it really is

Bolt Gatlin
In an area where we pay to fund the creation and promotion of false gods, it’s about time the customer got real and realised that it’s a lie in the name of profit, writes Ewan MacKenna

‘This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.’
Morpheus, The Matrix

I’ve a secret to confess. It’s kind of awkward for someone who makes a living watching, analysing, dissecting and delving into a very defined and specific area. But here goes. I have not believed in professional sport for quite some time. Indeed how anyone could is beyond me for, when you step back, it’s clear we’re being swooned by a lie as big business makes big bucks off our fawning naivety.

On Wednesday, the countdown to the Olympics dipped below the year mark. I’ve never covered a Games as I was always too far down the pecking order in papers but I do remember asking a colleague what it was like after he returned from Beijing in 2008. “Amazing,” he enthused. “One minute you’re watching Djokovic and Nadal, then you’re back to the stadium to see Usain Bolt break a world record, then you get a call to say we’ve a chance of a medal in the show jumping. It’s just remarkable.”


Break that list down. Or, worse still, look forward to next August and the greatest festival of sport showing up high-end competition for what it really is. Rio de Janeiro will be my first Olympics and when asked if I was excited, I said no. What’s to be excited about? Pretending it’s not chemistry masquerading as sport? I’d rather the painful, depressing truth viewed through open eyes.

In 12 months we’ll again have Bolt with his connections to back-street chemist Angel Hernandez taking on unrepentant double-doper Justin Gatlin in the sprint final; in long-distance we’ll be told to be honoured to see Mo Farah after his refusal to leave Alberto Salazar, Galen Rupp as he’s pushed forward by the suspicious Nike Oregon Project and the Kenyans with a testing system so rigid that stories emerged of athletes taking off into the woods at the sight of officials looking for urine; we’ll have tennis with its biggest names shrouded by doping questions due to a cosy cartel; and we’ll have the cesspit of cycling and all it represents.

We can talk about the banking sector, major pharmaceuticals, tobacco and politics, but on a consistent, worldwide level has any other industry knowingly taken us for such an expensive and make-believe ride? At best, the sports industry is certainly up there, even rivaling religion for having the gall to ask us to blindly accept miracles as just that. What is supposed to be a carefree escape from the problems of the real world is now contributing to those problems and those within and over these sports know it but mask it. But is anyone surprised? Does anyone even care? After all, the liar only lies to others but the visionary lies to himself.


Winning may well be everything to athletes but more dangerous are those behind them from sponsors to owners to governing bodies as, for them, profit is everything. In terms of selling a show, doping makes that easier as athletes across sports go stronger, faster, higher and that moves tickets. Meanwhile exposing how they do it would smear mud when a clear name moves commercial rights. It’s merely a game of creating and promoting fictional heroes and cashing in on it. Look at it this way, great sports journalism was once about celebrating what we presumed to be the truth whereas now it’s about destroying the myth you’re being sold.

It’s far from just the Olympics though. According to some, right now we’re in the midst of a summer of remarkable sport. Yet slip off the blindfold and you’ll realise all that is remarkable is how many of us accept what we are witnessing as genuine. The sensible talk around the Tour de France has been about how Chris Froome won, not that he won. The rumbling noise of the NFL is getting louder, a place where deflating a ball is viewed as more wrong than illegally changing your genetic make-up. The World Athletics Championships are thundering towards us amidst leaked documents showing between 2001 and 2012, 800 out of 12,000 athletes including a third of endurance medal winners at major events recorded blood tests which were “highly suggestive of doping, or at the very least abnormal”. The IAAF described these reports as “sensationalist and confusing” but denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.

However if the IAAF and others can’t look at themselves in the mirror, then we’ve to ask ourselves the same question for don’t think our greatest passions are exempt. The giddiness about our Rugby World Cup chances mean we’ve thus far ignored the fact that rugby has a history of doping. It’s just two years since former French international Laurent Benezech raised serious and worthwhile questions about what he described as “medical assistance” yet in a professional era where the style of game means doping would make more sense and more profit, we’re told all is suddenly well with no explanation as to when, why or how.


Soccer isn’t immune either as it tries to stare down its nose at the rest. Feyenoord 1970, Ajax 1970-73 and Bayern Munich 1973-76 used amphetamines; shortly before he won the 1985 European Cup, Giovanni Trapattoni had to deny his players had used the muscle-strengthening carnitine; EPO usage casts a shadow over the Juventus side of the 1990s. So why now, when there’s more money to be made, would soccer suddenly get clean? It’s illogical but then so too was the decision of a Spanish judge in 2013 to destroy the blood bags belonging to Dr Eufemiano Fuentes rather than hand them over to anti-doping authorities. This after Fuentes was told he need name only cyclists he had doped when he offered to name athletes from many other sports including soccer and tennis.

Growing up, I naively used to think sport was about fun, purity, and the brilliance of an honest battle of minds and bodies for our hearts. But take the red pill and you’ll see it’s anything but.

Sunday Business Post
9 August, 2015



  1. mediapenguin · · Reply

    What’s the big deal? Legalise drug use in sport and leave it upto individuals what they want to do. Only requirement is to declare what has been taken. Only era untainted probably Corinthians so let’s stop the dance. And reinstate Lance’s TdF triumphs.

    1. For the sake of my remaining faith in the intelligence of the human race, I’ll take this as a wind up!

      1. Oh dear mediapenguin…

      2. Enjoyable and thought-provoking read, Ewan.

        However, mediapenguin’s idea isn’t so wild. Here’s a counter-argument of sorts to your own position written by bioethicist Julian Savulescu in volume 38, issue 6 of the British Journal of Sports Medicine:

        Who knows whether or not the fact it could be found on the journal’s page 666 was a coincidence, mind?!

  2. As an aging sports mad fool, you are correct, in that we choose to deny such matters in the hope that our chosen favourites (person or team) are, of course, clean. Why wouldn’t they be; they’re the best. There is no excuse for hiding suspicious data, but to be fair there is for failing to keep up with the cheats; not easy. As fans we are a corporate delight; the ideal customer; extremely loyal, not price sensitive and can usually be ‘conned’ by most offerings.

    Sorry, nearly forgot to mention, I do have a conflict of interest. I didn’t have a cig at half-time when I played, so this gave me an unfair advantage over 80% of the others; I really do apologise. Never keen on oranges either.

  3. Are you suggesting that all professional sportsmen/women are doping in order to bridge the gap with the competition then? Or that the elite are “the elite” because of doping?

  4. Excellent article – summed up my thinking…….you can still love elite sport, but don’t close your eyes to what’s behind the great performances…

  5. I know what you’re thinking, ’cause right now I’m thinking the same thing. Actually, I’ve been thinking it ever since I got here: Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?
    Cypher The Matrix

    However no blue pill just denial…

  6. I’ve spent most of my life (with the exception of growing up in NYC when the Yankees were Mantle etc and so iconic that our elementary school teachers would pull in a TV to watch the series) absent any sort of relationship with sports teams. I’d marvel at the abilities of any individual, regardless of sport, but always considered both the innate ability and time it would take to develop them to that level, an odd sort of exclusion from the rest of an interesting world.

    I suppose the same could be said of anyone who reaches heights of exceptional excellence. Paco De Lucia, revered by great guitarists as “titanic” said: “The guitar has brought me much joy and much pain.” It’s been reported that his father forced him to practice for up to 12 hours a day, from the age of five. Anyone who’s ever seen him play can only wonder how human hands can do what his do.

    Similar examples of dedication could be cited of our greatest athletes. But great as they might be, the temptation to use chemical enhancements seems to tempt many who are already supremely gifted. And while it may disappoint and enrage some fans, watching others play sports at a level only a tiny number of humans could ever hope to, with or without chemical enhancement, still commands an incredible amount of time and money. Why is the irrational identification so strong?

    I’d venture it’s because it plays into a primitive connection with physical security and dominance. The identification with “our” winning team overcoming others, is something I’d speculate triggers a primal identification of the sort of physical superiority which at one time, until not that long ago in human history, meant “our” tribe had the abilities to defend against, or aggressively take resources from, whomever we identified as a potential enemy or possessor of wanted resources. When “our” team wins and blood tests show enhanced testosterone levels in the fans of the winners and diminished ones in the losers, we’re just falling prey to our own evolutionary biochemistry.

    That’s why there’s no logic or fact which can diminish the need to identify in that way (among many) and there’s little reason to believe that the incredible emphasis on sports will diminish anytime soon, no matter how many variations of new “enhancers” are uncovered. After all, when the barbarians are scaling your towns walls, who’s going to say that accepting a magic potion from the court wizard to defeat them, is cheating? Especially, that lovely blue pill.

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