Faster, stronger. Higher?

The Olympics. Oh dear. Over recent decades, the image of almost every institution has been tarnished, but the image of the Olympics has surely been tarnished more than most. Like millions of others, I no longer have confidence in the proceedings.  

The issue of drugs appears to be simple, but it is not. It is a Pandora’s box of nightmarish complexity. In the 1960s, we made jokes about female Russian and East German shot-putters who looked like men, but that is where it stopped. There was no testing, as far as I remember. There may not even have been a list of proscribed substances. Those times were not innocent and they were not clean, but in attempting since to define what is clean and to restore what may once have been innocent, the genie has been let out of the bottle, along with assorted other substances.

Science has now deconstructed the human being. Surgery has removed tissue and organs and replaced them with plastic and pig. Psychoanalysts have peered into our brains and figuratively dissected them. Chemists have isolated the chemicals that control our bodies and rule our minds. Biologists have reduced each and every one of us to a DNA formula and, in laboratories all over the world, we are being reassembled in test tubes to create passable imitations of human beings. In this maelstrom of deconstructivism, when within this century it seems probable that human beings will be formed without the immediate contribution of either parent, how does one define what is natural?

And how does one define what is or is not performance enhancing? Every minute of every elite athlete’s day is dedicated to the enhancement of performance. Everything an elite athlete eats or drinks is targeted towards performance. Are all those things entirely natural? How natural are processed vitamins or other legitimate food additives? Where does one draw the line between permitted enhancement and ‘drugs’?

The impossibility of answering that question clearly is illustrated by the fact that different sports have different lists of banned substances. The list for athletics is different from the one for football, is different from baseball. Lucky Mark McGwire. As a baseball player he broke the record for the number of home runs in a season in 1998, having admitted taking androstenedione. As an athlete he would have been banned for life.

For a sports fan to understand the implications of substance use and abuse would require a PhD in pharmacology. So we tend to make generalised and cynical assumptions. When an athlete fails a drugs test, we assume that he or she has knowingly taken a banned substance. When the excuse is offered that it was taken accidentally or was part of an over-the counter cold remedy, we’re not inclined to believe it.

But, unless we ingest only 100% natural food products (if they still exist) and nothing else, which of us can possibly know what we are eating? It is all very well saying that athletes need to take especial care, and they do, but no one can be expected to send everything they propose to eat for chemical analysis beforehand.

We are becoming more aware that it is not only athletes who have a vested interest in maximum performance. So do their coaches. So do their entire performance teams. They also have careers to advance. Gone are the days when top athletes trained alone, based at home. Now they spend much of their time in training camps, where presumably they have even less control over what they eat and drink and need to rely on the integrity of those around them.

At the Rio Olympics, there will have been bent athletes who knowingly took banned substances, clean athletes whose coaches or training teams surreptitiously gave them banned substances, and clean athletes who innocently consumed banned substances. If any of these groups failed a drugs test, sports fans (and, probably, the sports administrators) would not have been able to discriminate between them. All will be tarred with the same brush. All will be cheats. All will be banned and stripped of any medals.

But there is another group: those who, whether bent or clean, were lucky enough or devious enough to avoid detection altogether. Among the bent will be those those who are one step ahead of the anti-doping bodies when it comes to pharmacology and detection. The athletes in this group will have won medals and been lauded. They will be assumed to be clean. Some of them won’t be. And because we know that now, we can no longer take any athlete’s performance on trust.

Our concept of sport demands a level playing field. Present policies presume both that it is possible to draw a hard and fast line between good and bad substances, and that it is possible to police it. Neither proposition is true.

But the playing field is not tilted by drugs alone. Like everything else, it is slanted by money. The athletes in most, if not all, developed countries are funded by direct or indirect state aid, or by sponsorship. To appreciate the difference this can make, one should recall that, in 1996, the last Games before British athletes started to receive lottery funding, we won a solitary gold medal. However many medals African nations win in Rio, it will be far fewer that they would have won with the same funding. How can it any longer be said that the Olympics measure the best natural athletes in the world?

I have a modest proposal to make. An absurd one, perhaps, but no more absurd than the present reality. We currently have two Games: the Olympics and the Paralympics. We should add a third: the Pharmalympics. The Paralympics would be unchanged. The Olympics would become an amateur event, the contestants banned from sponsorship deals, state funding and professional training support. And drugs. There would still be drugs tests, but with fewer athletes failing.

In the Pharmalympics, though, anything goes. Contestants can take anything they like. All they have to do is sign a form beforehand to say they know they are being drugged, and accept all the consequences that might flow from this. To add to the spice, we could borrow an idea from Formula 1 and have a constructors’ championship, with a special trophy being awarded at the end of the Pharmalympics to the drugs company that had produced the most gold medallists.

Now, which Games would you watch?