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Sport’s inconvenient truth

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Let’s talk performance-enhancing drugs. Someone has to.

On the surface, it’s been a good couple of years for the doping authorities. Lance Armstrong was nailed, no major current sportsmen proven to be doping, and so few positives that they could point in the direction of EPO and steroids and say “that’s in the past”.

But is that really the case? Is top level sport clean, or do we just want it to be clean?

There’s a danger in finding out about doping in sport because it destroys the naivety of our default position as sport fans – that everyone at the top is clean and performing wonderful feats at the limit of human capability. We don’t like to ask questions because we’re afraid of what we’ll find out. Once you start asking doubting one feat, you end up doubting every single one.

For instance, Britain really enjoyed doing well and winning lots of medals at the 2012 Olympics. It’s easy to put this down to more abstract factors or things that are difficult to prove, like “better training regimes”, “better organisation” or simply “the home crowd factor”. No one is suggesting that British athletes doped. No one is even asking “why did that guy go from mediocre to brilliant?” or “how did she suddenly become so good?” It’s just taken as a given that British athletes did well because they’re great and their coaches are great and the fans are great. British athletes would never dope – we’re better than that. Really?

The doping question is that bad memory you want to suppress and pretend is gone but is actually still there lodged in the back of your brain. But now with Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell and Nesta Carter, three of the fastest men over 100m in history, testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, this is no longer something that we can suppress or say was happening in the past. It is still here – doping is almost certainly still widespread in sport. It’s a bleak reality, but the question isn’t “of the top sportsmen and women, who’s doping?” but “of the top sportsmen and women, who’s clean?”

The context of these latest big name positive tests is quite important in understanding the whole issue.

A decade ago, there was much competition for that same 100m crown. Americans dominated – Maurice Greene won in Sydney in 2000, a year after setting a new world record of 9.79 seconds. Between Sydney and Athens, Tim Montgomery appeared as a rival, edging Greene’s mark by 0.01 in 2002, before being charged with taking PEDs and eventually being stripped of his times. Nonetheless, the Athens games saw another American winner of the 100m with Justin Gatlin the surprise winner. Gatlin would go on to set a personal best of 9.77 in 2006, equalling the new record set by Powell in 2005, before he too was found out shortly after, the second positive test of his career (he managed to get out of the first in 2001 on the grounds that he was taking medication for attention deficit disorder).

Then Usain Bolt turned up and everyone stopped thinking.

Think about that for a minute – the world record went up incrementally over a period of 6 years; athletes were unable to go more than 0.01 seconds faster, and when they did, they were usually found out to be taking PEDs. Every single one of those guys has now either tested positive or, in Greene’s case (courtesy of Angel Heredia), been strongly linked to PED usage. And then suddenly this young Jamaican guy comes along and smashes their times, eventually doing a 9.58 – that’s two tenths of a second faster than the maximum known dopers were able to achieve. Over 100m, that’s a lifetime. By now, the Bloody Suspicious Klaxon should be blaring in your head.

But will you see the media discussing this? No. For them it’s best to continue the illusion, if it is indeed that. Build them up and then knock them down when it’s convenient. And besides, we shouldn’t speculate, should we? Innocent until proven guilty and all that…

But this is the problem. Montgomery never tested positive. Neither did former women’s 100m record holder Marion Jones who was in the same circle, Victor Conte’s BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative) operation. This also included numerous other leading athletes, including Dwain Chambers, as well as MLB stars, including record-breaker Barry Bonds, and NFL players. Very few of these actually tested positive. It was eventually proven through the law courts, not in the labs.

The golden rule of doping is that the dopers are always ahead of the testers. This has always been the case through history. The old adage that cheats never prosper is a lie – they often do. Many are found out but I’m sure there are some that will never be.

Focusing on athletics and in particular sprinting for a minute, why do we assume that they aren’t doping? Aside from blind faith, we’re told that testing is better and that the doping authorities are winning the fight. The evidence? Well, various stats and figures. And then Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell test positive. Admittedly this is only informed speculation, but dopers tend not to dope for a one-off, mainly because it doesn’t work like that – there’s a good chance Gay and Powell have been doing this all along.

If major athletes like them can slip through the net, how can we believe that testing is better and that the doping authorities are winning the fight? They have some nice heads to mount on their wall now but if anything this raises more questions about them than actually being something to celebrate.

Sprinting had successfully rid itself of the image of being riddled with doping on account of one athlete that we the lay people could all recognise as being great just by watching. Cycling is trying to follow this. Now that Lance’s head is on a spike and his competitors of the early 2000s have virtually all owned up too, and with no evidence of any major positives (i.e. anyone the public would recognise) in the last couple of years, the issue of doping is once again being brushed under the carpet by most of those in the mainstream media. And yet if you dip beneath the surface, as in athletics, there is plenty of speculation.

The problem is Team Sky are pretty much the US Postal Service/Discovery Channel team reincarnate. From the super-organised nature of the team to the style in which it goes about its racing there’s very little in it – in general, it’s the win-at-all-costs approach. But they have also learned from USPS – whereas Lance was always confrontational in his rebuttals about the doping questions (until it became obvious), Dave Brailsford and Sky have tried to be softer and more open. Having the might of News Corporation behind you probably helps too.

The arch-propagandists of the sport lead us to believe that doping in cycling tailed off after Lance retired, Floyd Landis was caught and the authorities “started taking things seriously”. Times went up, which is supposedly evidence of this (because, you know, it’s not like the teams would intentionally dope a little bit less to make it seem less obvious – isn’t that right, Alberto?). Sky are part of this new generation and have the support of Britain behind them, a nation that is starting to fully embrace the sport for the first time. But that may be the problem.

Imagine you’re in charge of investigating doping in cycling – do you want to be the one to upset the whole nation of Britain by outing Bradley Wiggins or Chris Froome as dopers, therefore implicating Team Sky, Dave Brailsford and, by extension, the enormously successful British cycling operation as a whole? Do you want to face the wrath of the British media? Do you want cycling to lose even more credibility?

Tyler Hamilton’s recent autobiography was a game-changer for a lot of people, including myself. The main issue that came out of it was not that USPS riders were doped up to the eyeballs – we knew that anyway. It was that the cycling authorities knew the USPS riders were doped up to the eyeballs. They knew that the dominant team in cycling was cheating, that every other team was cheating, and they brushed it under the carpet for the sake of viewing figures. Corruption, basically.

The concerning thing is there’s nothing to stop that happening again. There’s nothing to say that that’s not going on today – that Team Sky are doping, that the cycling authorities know about this, and that they are covering it up to keep the British and everyone else who believes in the Tour de France and the sport of cycling happy. Because money is king. And if you piss Murdoch off, there ain’t much hope for you…

And the implications of this aren’t just for cycling. They are for athletics, football, tennis, Formula One, the NFL – you name it. What the USPS case proves is that sport authorities are willing to allow their sport to become a charade, because people don’t care. The media dare not ask questions and most casual observers aren’t inclined to ask questions proactively. They prefer to watch believing what they see is real competition between clean sportsmen. They prefer not to question. After all, our natural instinct when watching sport is to believe what you’re seeing is genuine in the moment, and then question it later on.

Ultimately if the media revealed the whole thing to be a drug-fuelled sham, they would sell less newspapers or have less viewers. And even then, the Armstrong example proves that even if you provide hard evidence that a beloved sportsman is doping, half his fans won’t believe it anyway – there are plenty of people that still believe Lance was clean, while many others refused to believe it until the Oprah interview, despite all the evidence staring them in the face.

So where’s the motivation to reveal that the big names in a sport are cheating? The answer is there isn’t any – it would be counter-productive.

This isn’t a massive conspiracy theory – it’s logical. A sport will protect its own interests and get away with what it can. Keep them sweet by chucking in a couple of obvious positives here and there, and people will believe it – it’s more believable if there are one or two big names found out every so often than if no one was testing positive. Sports cannot be trusted to root out the cheats.

Usain Bolt will probably never test positive. Or, at least if he does, it won’t be until towards the end of his career as with Gay and Powell – by whenever he has outlived his usefulness to the sport. Does this mean he is clean? No. I believe there is enough evidence to suggest that you cannot trust the doping authorities and the sports authorities any more, so I feel entitled to be able to speculate. Sprinting, and by extension athletics as a whole, has to re-earn my trust again.

To me, it seems unlikely that anyone who has run below 9.80 seconds in the 100m is clean. It took an enormous doping effort to get from 9.79 to 9.78, let alone 9.58. Bolt is now essentially now 0.25 faster than the nearest athlete that might be clean. That’s a massive red flag in my eyes. He was a breath of fresh air when he burst onto the scene and we all fell in love with him, but the guy’s suspicious now.

Similarly, in cycling, I have suspicions about Team Sky. They may be open and relatively mild-mannered, but there are questions. Chris Froome has come from nowhere over the last two years to become superficially one of the best riders ever. His time climbing Mont Ventoux a few days ago nearly matched Armstrong’s, and his recoveries between stages are extraordinary. That’s not normal. That’s superhuman. And once you start using that word, alarm bells should be ringing.

If Team Sky are doping, that raises questions about the British Olympic cycling team, for which Brailsford is also responsible. If there are questions about the cycling team, by extension you have to look at other British athletes. The old “the British don’t dope, we’re too fair” trope is nonsense. Doping is not just for Eastern European women with hairy armpits – we passed that 30 years ago, and they were a convenient target even then. Nor can we just blame the Spaniards because of Operacion Puerto. A competitive sportsman or sportswoman who wants to win at all costs is without nationality.

Mo Farah. I ran home from the pub to watch him win his first gold last year. A few weeks later, I stumbled upon an athletics forum and many of those discussing there were convinced he was doping. I looked into it. His coach, Alberto Salazar, claims to be clean, but also likes to say he pushes the boundaries. Oh really? Couple that with Farah’s meteoric rise over the last couple of years, something that should always raise questions, and I’m now suspicious. And what about other British athletes? These are legitimate questions now, questions which need to be asked instead of being swept under the carpet with the implication that anyone who asks them is a tin-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist.

In the aftermath of Gay and Powell’s positive tests, 100m star Yohan Blake, 800m world record holder David Rudisha and 1500m Olympic champion Taoufik Makhloufi all withdrew from this summer’s World Championships in Moscow with “injury” or “illness”. Uh, hello? You don’t think that’s awfully convenient? Blake already has a positive test on his record. Is this thing on?

Barcelona’s astonishing football has raised questions, but not loudly enough to get above the sycophancy of the mainstream football media. Their endurance and recovery is exceptional – how they can play such an intensive style of football without getting tired seems superhuman. Then they were beaten to the La Liga title by Real Madrid, who were managed by a manager who at a previous club talked of “Dr Needles” and hinted at giving players “supplements” – look, I like Mourinho, but you can’t say his practices aren’t suspicious. And then Barca were beaten by Bayern Munich in the Champions League this year, whose club doctor has controversial methods and has worked with Tyson Gay and Usain Bolt…

But you won’t see this in the papers. Talk of doping in sport is left for the message boards and the occasional blogger. Bill Simmons’ exceptional article for Grantland earlier this year is one of the few to attack this from a different angle, instead of sticking to the safe, unquestioning “well none of them have tested positive so they must be clean, anyway let’s talk about something else” line.

Sport hides this. It bottles it up. But it’s only serving to make us look stupid years on down the line, when someone will inevitably break the secret and everyone says “oh how could we have been fooled? It should have been obvious.” The sports authorities will walk away with no damage – the burden of guilt and embarrassment is left not with those involved, but the innocent party, the viewers. We shouldn’t accept that. Nor should we accept counter-arguments like “everyone else was doping too” and “what’s so bad about performance-enhancing drugs anyway?” We are being lied to by everyone within that sport who knows what is going on.

Ask questions. Be suspicious. Don’t be afraid to speculate. Don’t be afraid to accuse. Don’t allow yourself to be bullied by those that say there is no evidence. After Armstrong, Gay and Powell, professional sport can no longer expect us to trust it.

Images used in the spirit of fair use. Because it’s important to be fair, isn’t it?

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Written by James Bennett

July 18, 2013 at 15:56