Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Sex and drugs and forward rolls

Not for the first time in history, the question of doping has arisen at the Olympics. This time, it took until Monday for a US Olympic voice to publically question the record-smashing swim of China’s 16-year-old Ye Shiwen.

She has already been tested (there are billboards all over London advertising the role of smithglaxokline in testing) and, apparently, found to be utterly clean.

That’s no certainty of anything either, though – for a variety of reasons, from a drug being known by the testers, the drug no longer being detectable, masking agents – and probably loads more things.

There’s also, once we delve into this sort of thing, the question of who is testing the testers? But that's another question.

But I’m prepared to say this: Ye is very unlikely to be a completely ‘natural’ swimming miracle. And neither is any other swimmer or competitor in London.

Let me explain.

The only surprise about ‘drugs’ in sport is that anyone has ever convinced themselves that any of this is new.

There are plenty of references to athletes and warriors in ancient times taking all manner of things if it helped their performance.

According to Scandinavian mythology, the Beserkers would drink a mixture of bulotens, possibly made from some sort of a (magic?) mushroom, to increase their physical power – even though there was a risk of it sending them a bit, err, beserk.

In WWII and since, pilots have often been stuffed to the gills with whatever is necessary to keep them awake.

Ancient Greek athletes used special diets and potions to improve their performance. Cocaine and caffeine have both been used down the years.

One Abraham Wood, a participant in endurance walking races in Britain in the early 19th century, said in 1807 that he’d used laudanum (opium) to keep him awake for 24 hours while competing.

And by 1877, such races had stretched to 500 miles, with competitors talking almost no sleep, according to the Illustrated London News. Draw your own conclusions on the basis of logic.

Organisers decided that endurance cycle races could be even more exciting for the spectator. As Les Woodland describes it in This Island Race: Inside 135 years of British bike-racing, “a tired walker, after all, merely sits down – a tired cyclist falls off and possibly brings others crashing down as well. That’s much more fun”.

By the time modern Olympics got underway, strychnine was in use too. In the 1904 Games, US marathon runner Thomas Hicks was struggling, before trainer Charles Lucas pulled a syringe and, as he later put it himself, gave Hicks a “milligram of sulphate of strychnine” and “a large glass brimming with brandy.”

Personally, I’ve never found that alcohol did anything for my own performance in anything other than sleeping. But it apparently got Hicks going again, although he required a top-up injection four miles from the end.

Drugs continued to be used in cycling.

British cyclist Tom Simpson – the country’s first men’s road race world champion – died of exhaustion during the 1967 Tour de France, with the postmortem revealing amphetamines and alcohol, a cocktail that, when combined with the heat, had proved fatal.

Yet the cause went unreported for some time.

Amphetamines were popular elsewhere – the Everton championship winning football team of 1962-63 were routinely handed Benzedrine, according to goalkeeper Albert Dunlop, who says that he became addicted to them.

Synthetic hormones had arrived on the scene as early as the 1930s.

US doctor John Ziegler developed steroids and gave them to weightlifters after having discovered, in the 1950s, that the Russians were doing something similar. He developed Dianabol – a favourite of Big Arnie, who is reported to have popped them merrily in his days as a professional bodybuilder.

The first attempts at banning the use of drugs in sport came in 1928 from the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF). Other bodies followed suit, but as there was no effective testing, nothing much changed.

Fast forward a few years. The rise of public awareness of drugs in sport – and the concomitant outrage – came with the Cold War, and with sport as one of many proxy wars in that.

It became, in the West, something that the nasty commies did. And drug testing, together with the obscenity of gender tests, gained momentum.

Not that the latter is a thing of the past, as the recent crass row over South African runner Caster Semenya has reminded us. Apparently, you can have the genitals of a woman and all the inside bits in all the right places – and somebody (primarily the IAAF) will question whether you have a ‘condition’ that gives you an ‘unfair advantage’ by, presumably, turning you into something different from a woman. A sort of not-quite-a-woman.

There are arguments that the idea of only two sexes is inaccurate, but disregarding that, to pretend that women are made from a single template any more than men are would be plain daft.

Yet extraordinarily, the International Olympic Committee has actually had its medical commission (led by a man, strangely) recommend to it that women athletes with a “disorder of sex development” (ie ‘too much’ testosterone) have ‘treatment’ – even surgery – to ‘correct’ this, if they wish to continue competing. (Story)

It is a struggle to imagine a scenario where anyone suggested that a man have treatment for ‘too much’ testosterone – or even too little.

Not that it would ever have happened in Baron de Coubertin’s day. The founder of the modern Olympics was, like so many men of his time and class, opposed to women being allowed anywhere near sport. This is what comes of modernity.

But here is the crux of the matter.

In sport, there is no such thing as a level playing field. It is a myth.

There are genetic differences: some people can put on muscle easily, others cannot.

There are geographic differences – altitude etc.

There are financial and educational and training differences; never mind just between countries, but within nations too.

There are cultural differences – are women, for instance, allowed to compete or train or even play sports?

One female athlete may have more testosterone than the statistical norm, but that does not mean that she is not a woman or that she is cheating.

The next point is that it is doubtful that there is a single ‘natural’ athlete in any sport in any country.

Because when you train for a sport, you are not doing what is ‘natural’. We have not evolved with the prime purpose of able to pole vault or run 26 miles in little more than two hours.

For any female athlete, serious training will almost get rid of periods altogether. This is not ‘natural’, if we consider ‘natural’ as being of nature. It is certainly not ‘the norm’.

And it is extremely unlikely that what any athlete does with their diet is ‘normal’ either.

Many if not all will supplement. They will work out the actual food they consume to the finest degree.

Manchester City’s championship-winning football players have a team behind them that makes up entirely legal supplements that are tailored for each individual player’s needs, based on blood and other tests.

Now, push past the propaganda and ask yourself what the real difference is here.

We consider a vitamin C supplement to be ‘natural’. But it’s no more ‘natural’ than a dose of opium.

We have no issue with cocktails of supplements and a diet that is miles from anything that a ‘normal’, healthy-eating person would consume, yet we continue to fall for left-over Cold War propaganda about ‘drugs’. This is largely semantics.

Next big point. Drugs for sport are not made over a Bunsen burner in some backroom of downtown Hackney.

These are state-of-the-art affairs. Quite possibly produced by ‘proper’ pharmaceutical companies, backed by serious, sophisticated research. Many, indeed, are drugs that are otherwise use medically.

Steroids are used to treat many things, from skin problems to arthritis.

In order for the testers to ever ‘win’, they’d have to know what the chemists were next going to create. And unless they develop that telepathy, they will always be playing catch-up.

Next point. It is some time since we reached a stage of utter stupidity in terms of what is tested for and what can get you banned.

A decade or so ago, I did a little athletics training with Essex Ladies. The throwing coach told me that he had had to issue advice to the parents of teenage athletes, telling them that they should not give their child a Lemsip or similar if they had a cold. If they did, and the girl was then visited for a random test the following day, she would fail and be banned.

This is clearly an idiotic situation. Goodness knows how much of a cold cure you’d have to consume to give yourself a sporting advantage over and above not snivelling as you ran, but it isn’t one.

You can have ‘too many’ cups of coffee and fail a test. Yet 400m hurdles world champion, Olympic gold medallist and world record holder Sally Gunnell would, in a state of pre-race nerves, chain smoke as she waited to enter a stadium.

So Lemsip is banned – but nicotine is not.

In other words, this is not about the health of the athletes. And nor is it about how something is produced – caffeine potentially bad, a highly-processed supplement, not.

And it is doubtful that there is a single, serious athlete on Earth who is ‘natural’ or unassisted in some way or other.

That, in itself, is not remotely a bad thing. When people are stretching themselves beyond the bounds of ‘normal’ human activity, then it is entirely appropriate that they should look for way to help themselves do that better.

It’s worth dealing with another myth here: even steroids don’t mean laziness; the instant transformation of a sporting also ran to a champion. One of the major things that they do is to speed the body’s recovery time, thus meaning that you can work out longer, harder and more frequently. Other legal substances do the same, just as legal concoctions are used to promote muscular development, fat loss – and many other things.

As I have outlined, the war against drugs in sport cannot win. So it seems to me that we need to do a number of things.

We need to start with an honest debate, raising the issues that I have raised here and cutting through the sludge of propaganda that has informed the issue for decades.

It would seem logical to wipe the slate clean in terms of what is tested for. And only to start testing again for substances (and amounts) that can damage the health of an athlete.

We also need to get rid of the obscenity that is continued sex tests.

Anything else is a waste of time – as well as being intellectually dishonest.


  1. nicely put thank you.
    Professional cyclists are consuming an average 6000 calories per day (figures from Maastricht 1988) recommended daily 'normal' intake (male) is 2500, where the doping starts is a religious/moral consideration.

  2. Very sensible article! ( & yay, berserkers! What is a "buloten"? :) )

  3. >> Steroids are used to treat many things, from skin problems to arthritis.

    Those are corticosteroids, used to reduce inflammation.

    Anabolic steroids have very different properties, one of which is that they mimic testosterone, increasing the body's ability to synthesise protein, and thus helping muscles to grow and repair themselves.

  4. Shame you don't know what you are talking about!

  5. Hi Amanda. An interesting post. I have quibbles about 'sex testing'. You are right, there is no simple way to distinguish men from women. There is confusion and overlap, what ever criteria you choose.

    But why have two classes anyway? The answer, surely, is to protect women athletes. If you don't have two classes men would win almost every Olympic medal. There are a few (and interesting) exceptions. But essentially the division is 'Women' and 'Everyone Else'--to protect women.

    Given two classes, you have to define who fits where--even if the criteria are a bit arbitrary and the tests intrusive.

    Consider the alternative: anyone can self-declare to being a woman, no tests or other requirements necessary. What then is to stop men competing in women's events?

    THAT is the problem. Look forward to your solution!

    Regards and thanks for your analysis.

  6. Hi, and thanks for the comment.

    Yes, you make some very interesting points. I'm not sure it's a question of 'protecting', though, as much as realising inherent differences: women (in general) have a different physical makeup that means their 'best' in terms of, say. running, jumping and throwing will be lower or less.

    The exceptions you mention – including equestrianism and (the non-Olympic) Formula 1 –allow outcomes that involve something that are not dependent on those physical differences.

    You could add, I think, that the history of sports means that women's sporting activity has often – and until very recently in some cases – been suppressed. This was the first Games where every event allowed women to compete in the relevant categories. It was only very recently that some athletics events – pole vault and steeplechase, if memory serves – were forbidden women. Boxing again until recently (I remember the massive chest beating over allowing that in the 1990s). Women's football suffered for decades after the war (when it was massively popular and drew huge crowds) – indeed, the FA worked against it for some years.

    But again on the protection issue: you could argue the same about the situation we're seeing with Oscar Pistorius, now set to compete in the Paralympics, having also competed in the Olympics.

    Perhaps there will be more cases like this: the suggestions to the IOC on sex testing/surgery etc could possibly lead to more 'open' events.

    It's certainly an interesting point – and given the way in which women's sport is developing now it has the benefits of being more accepted etc – perhaps cross-overs may occur in the future.

    Again, thanks for your comments. Some very interesting things to think about.