Drugs In Sport: The Unwinnable War?

Duncan ScottAnalyst IJuly 17, 2009

One of my early Bleacher articles was about Tommy Simpson, an English professional cyclist who died while competing in the Tour de France, and who was found to have taken banned amphetamines.

I had starting researching Simpson's death with the belief that he was a druggie and a fool, who had knowingly pedaled to his early death. But I finished feeling very sympathetic to him, and confused about my views on drugs in sport.

The confusing question I could not answer was this; If an athlete knows he cannot reach the top of his sport without using drugs, is he a hero or a fool to spurn them?

In some ways my question is naive, for in many sports the athlete will know from the very outset, before they have reached the first rung of the competitive ladder, that they are committing to a sports career based on drug use.

Few could look at modern bodybuilders, men and women, and believe that such development is possible by entirely natural means; by pumping iron and eating food supplements. It is widely recognized that steroid use is rampant, and it is easy to find photos on the web showing the extreme effects.

I started this article with a reference to Tommy Simpson and the Tour de France.

In the years since Simpson's death there have been many drugs scandals in professional cycling. Entire teams have been wiped out of the sport, and its very existence has been seriously threatened.

Of course regulatory bodies have taken steps to counter drug use, including blood doping. Unfortunately, they have never been able to permanently get one step ahead of the athletes, who are advised by doctors just as expert as those working to enforce the rules.

New tests are developed and new masking techniques are brought in to fool the testers. It is an endless cycle, and one that appears to be just as futile as the law enforcement effort against illegal drugs in western countries.

I don't know how many billions have been spent on trying to halt the flow of illegal drugs to countries such as the U.S. and U.K., but I do know the drugs are still coming. Even the remote rural area of Scotland where I live has drug users, and they seem to have no difficulty obtaining supplies.

What chance then do sports authorities have against drugs use when all the resources of state law enforcement, and all the might and majesty of the judicial system are ineffective? 

Every time I hear of an athlete being disqualified for failing a drugs test, my thought is that he or she is an unlucky one. If, for example, a 100m sprinter fails a test, is it remotely conceivable that their coach/manager/teammates were unaware of drugs being used?

It seems more likely to me that that the testing regime is catching a few people, but that those who slip past the tests are still facing the Simpson question, to continue with chemical performance enhancement or to fade from the pinnacle of their sport.

If the war on drugs cannot be won, perhaps it is time to call a halt to it, and to at last bring things out into the open and let athletes make an honest choice.

That could be seen as a surrender to cheating, or a recognition of reality.

You tell me.

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