If cheating comes naturally to the human race, then it’s proven by the state of sport which leaves us asking what hope is there for tomorrow and what’s the point anymore, writes Ewan MacKenna
Two kids are playing a game of Monopoly when one goes to refill a glass of Coke – the other sees an opening so do they reach into their mate’s money and throw an extra house on their street?
A graduate is applying for a job when they notice that the boss is friends with their parents – realising it’s a position they want, do they try to gain an advantage and get a call put in?
An athlete spends a lifetime reaching the cut-throat world of elite sport – with an almost risk-free way to gain the telling few inches that will make them a champion, do they go ahead and juice?
Some suggest saying yes to the above is cynical, but all evidence says answering no is naive. And as the idea bounces about today that cheating is about money, it’s wrong. It’s simply human nature.
This is a topic that came up during the week when talking to an expert doping insider who asked why not make drugs legal? “It makes sport like Formula One where the engineer is more important than the driver, thus it’ll be similar with chemist and athlete” you said. “Not to mention health.”
He paused for a moment. “I don’t think you’re nearly cynical enough. It’s already like the engineer and the driver. People have this idea sport should be fair, it’s absolutely not. Two people train as hard as each other and one loses – what’s fair there? And if the risk-reward is so much in their favour why wouldn’t they dope? As for the health issue, pushing it underground adds to the risk.”
“So what’s the point anymore, how can we enjoy it?” you asked back.
“It’s like Floyd Landis used to say,” he responded. “Watch the Tour de France and take pleasure in the scenery. Even enjoy the competition, just don’t waste your time believing any of it is true.”
It made you wonder, for those who’ve given up on the present, what hope is there in the future?
* * *
A fortnight ago the International Olympic Committee announced they’d retested 454 samples and discovered 31 new cheats from the Beijing Games. On Friday they announced those same batch of retests had found 23 new cheats from the London Games. They said little else in terms of the who, what, where and why, citing legal reasons, and refused to explain the selection process given they’re sitting on 4,500 tests. But when you are catching cheats and sending a message that you’ll never get away with it, it should be good thing. The way they do it though, it comes across as a negative as no one knows what’s really happening. In fact all you could think of was that we’ll be in the same situation a decade down the line when it comes to what we are being sold later this summer in Brazil.
If the conversation with the insider is the philosophical angle to doping, then anti-doping comes down to mentality and science. And neither is particularly encouraging. “The mentality isn’t good enough in terms of those supposed to be stopping it, that’s the biggest problem we have,” says Renee Anne Shirley, one of the world’s leading anti-doping experts and the whistle-blower who exposed Jamaica’s negligible levels of testing in the run-up to the London Olympics. “The IOC, the international federations, they are really scared of having their stars being found guilty of doping.
“It’s so bad it’s become like Pandora’s Box, with a desperation to keep the lid down. Wada are supposed to oversee it but I think of them as the United Nations of sport. Their code is fine, but a document that was universal had to get all sports and countries together, lots of compromises had to be made, and they’ve spent the last decade trying to get everyone on board so they haven’t been pushing compliance properly. So they’ve left it to the countries and that’s second-tier testing so you get a Russia or China or whoever who haven’t taken on the challenge of stopping it.”
In terms of Wada, they’ve essentially been given the mandate of protecting sport when they are too invested in the image. As an example they recently said Ethiopia’s in-country testing was deplorable and rated it zero. So why then is the African nation still being given a welcoming arm to these Olympics? Not that they’re alone, in fact if the Wada code was worth the paper it’s written on then Russia, Spain, Mexico, Kenya, Morocco, Turkey and many more would be chucked out.
“Before, I used to think the biggest problem was testers were years behind,” says Ross Tucker, a professor of exercise physiology, an anti-doping expert and the man behind the excellent site SportsScientists.com. “They still are but a bigger issue is the authorities that control the testers aren’t interested in catching the dopers to begin with. The science is just a tool and until the people who use the tool show the intent to use it properly, the root cause won’t be the lack of scientific capability but the political will. Where there’s a will there’s a way; we lack the will.”
Take Shirley as the perfect example. Having seen the practices of her nation as Executive Director of Jamaican Anti-Doping Commission she couldn’t stand over the lie. Yet to tell the truth in sport these days involves courage and the aftermath involves fear. She was described as Judas and a traitor, and when she traveled to Wembley to speak at a conference in 2013 she had to do so without the blessing of her family who were already concerned about threats made against her.
“Today I’m still affected by it,” she adds. “Nobody likes anybody coming forward. I’ve had athletes all over the world, even your country, who contact me and are scared. The burden of proof is ridiculous, it’s at the stage where the evidence has to be so much in your face that you cannot say it’s not happening. Otherwise people won’t pay attention. Personally, I got little respect, but my story isn’t unusual. So you have to be committed, because sport doesn’t want to ask the question.”
The solution to this aspect is simple and impossibly complicated all at once. Those over anti-doping should be incentivised to disrupt; instead they’re co-operative and those that do challenge are outcasts. Ideally the system should seek to disprove and undermine but now it seeks to protect itself. But even if that was overcome, there’s the scientific aspect which is a safe within a safe.
All in all there are three methods to improve testing. You can better the sensitivity of the current test for the current drug, screening the banned substance at lower levels; you can create new tests for current drugs; and you can create new tests for new drugs. But look at it from the perspective of the athlete – at any given time they can use drugs so long as they don’t use too much; they can use drugs we currently can’t test for; and they can use drugs no one even knows exist. “When you look like that you say, ‘The testers are pretty hard behind’”, says Tucker. “But you don’t know what you don’t know by definition. How far are we behind? We don’t know because we don’t know.
As an example he alludes to organic chemists constantly modifying drugs and substances that makes them more effective but also less detectable. Right now there are drugs not even available commercially, that exist only by codes but are probably being used for performance benefits. And it goes on. Some reports say there are 80 different types of EPO coming out of China, with molecule modifications to avoid detection. “If there are 80 types of EPO, 80 types of tests are needed and the cost-benefit is off the charts negative,” adds Tucker. “So what they tried to do was detect the benefit of the drug rather than the presence of the drug. That’s the biological passport but the problem here is that it’s not sensitive enough to detect all the doping.”
In essence, anti-doping has wagered its future on something that doesn’twork. With natural variations in humans, and an upper limit in tests, so long as you constantly microdose within that limit you won’t get caught. It’s why the profiles of top athletes that dope don’t have variations or spikes, as if drawn deliberately and expertly. But it’s those at the back trying to keep up but without the resources that offer the obvious cheat charts. “They keep catching no-namers, and maybe they are using them as scapegoats,” he concludes, “but it’s also that they are the guys who make mistakes. The top guys don’t make them but this is where the health risk comes in again.”
It makes you think back to the conversation with the insider yet you can’t shirk the feeling legalising doping won’t help anything. After all, we’ve rules of the road to stop bad driving but people still driving recklessly isn’t an argument to get rid of all the rules. However that doesn’t inspire confidence in a rotten present and there’s been little to inspire confidence in the future either. So, you ask Shirley how she still watches sport after all she’s been through?
“People will always cheat,” she responds. “We have the ability to at least put a road block but those in charge don’t do that, they say let’s keep the show going and the problem is everyone involved keeps winning. You wouldn’t believe how bad it is, it’s at the point where I’d nearly say to athletes they are stupid for not doping. I used to love sport but I guess I lost my passion because of the lies so all I can do is try to put my passion now into trying to tell the truth and getting people to see the truth. But the way sport is, if you want to do that you can expect to be a lonely voice.”
Abridged version in Sunday Business Post
29 May, 2016