Performance-enhancing drugs, corruption and the future direction of world sports

What is the link between performance-enhancing drugs and corruption in professional sport and the loss of ‘sporting’ values in modern society – values of fair play, constructive competition, team-work and leisure activity for health and enjoyment? What chance does a ‘clean sportsperson… playing in the right spirit’ have in an age of professionalism corrupted by drugs and monies paid under the table by or despite many global sports agencies?

Perhaps the best thing Australia (and the world) inherited from its British colonial origins was not just the most exemplary and international of sports (golf, cricket, horse racing, and various modes of football such as rugby) – but associated sporting values epitomized by notions of not just fair play and team-work but of the underdog never giving up and the importance ‘having a go’ in the right spirit (1). The English especially continue to be world-beaters at being ‘good losers’ – for example, in aspiring to but always failing (since 1966) to win the World cup in soccer (a game it also invented) and for giving the Australians, Indians and others so much enjoyment in regularly ‘flogging’ them at cricket. Another Brit ex-colony ‘America’ not only missed out for centuries on these now global sports but on the associated values as well to become obsessed with ‘winning for its own sake’. As we noted in an earlier post (Is Donald Trump the Kim Jong-il of American golf?) (2) this has perhaps been most significantly exemplified by the rise of Donald Trump and his signature and cynical tramping of the most sacred values of golf.

The ideals of the Olympics inherited from ancient Greece has been the other significant exemplar of sporting values that have been abused and plundered in modern times – as the modern Olympics movement has increasingly been caught up in developing the link between drugs and corruption in professional sport and the loss of sporting values mentioned above (3). With just weeks to go before the next Winter Olympics at PyeongChang (Korea), we believe this has been no better exemplified than by the state-organised corruption of the 2014 Sochi winter Olympics by the Russian Olympics federation at the behest of Putin and his cronies (4). This biggest sporting scam of them all took place after a similar but less ‘advanced’ effort by the Russians to corrupt the London summer Olympics through a doping regime lead by its head of anti-doping Rodchenko (5). Its reported that 1000 athletes were doped up before being organised to evade this through the process of ‘washout testing’ (6). It’s now also known thanks to Rodchenko turning whistleblower in fear of his life that (a) there was an even more systematic doping program conducted at Sochi with apparently the personal approval of Putin, and (b) that this involved setting up a second drug evasion room for Russian Olympians next to the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) drug testing room to ensure successful cheating (7).

The Russian Olympics scandal rekindled memories of the East German sports doping programs of the 1970s (8). Other authoritarian regimes (e.g. China) (9) have similarly been known to try to manipulate not just the Olympics but other sporting quests and events for nationalist prestige and/or as a form of de facto modern warfare. However, the Russians were always going to get caught out. And their efforts can be compared to China’s larger strategy to transform itself into a sporting nation more in terms of a comprehensive organised national strategy that is ultimately similar to how corporate money as well as national prestige evens sporting bodies and associations in even many Western countries as well as emerging nations these days (10). And yet the emerging scandals of the International Olympic Committee (which is supposed to be a ‘non-profit independent international organisation made up of volunteers’) in recent times including Rio have even been arguably eclipsed by those of FIFA and world soccer (11). And similar programs were trialled by clubs in different football codes in Australia (e.g. by the Essendon club caught out by the national anti-doping agency ASADA) (12).

In short then, as further recently exemplified by the recent Brazilian government’s corrupt efforts with the soccer world cup as well as Rio Olympics (13), the focus on organised sports scams has generally tended to move from the level of individual rorting via performance-enhancing drugs (North American sprinters such as Ben Johnson, Flo-Jo and recently yet again by Justin Gatlin) (e.g. 14) to the national and international levels of organised dishonesty and even criminality. Yet the ubiquity of performance-enhancing drugs and the endless available monies of various vested interests have given rise to a perception that its not possible to win out with performance-enhancing drugs, that everyone is doing it, and that it is possible to use new drugs or techniques to avoid detection (and outsmart the anti-doping agencies) (15). Nowhere was this better exemplified than by the story of drug cheat cyclist Lance Armstong (exemplar of how drugs took over his sport also) (16) – although weightlifting and bodybuilding are perhaps sports where this is even more endemic (e.g. 17). Even the cautionary tale of tennis star Maria Sharapova inadvertently taking banned medications just emphasises the grey area also of sports people at least using medications for advantage which they think are not yet on the list (18).

So, what is a genuine sports-lover to make of all of this, and where to ahead? In terms of international sports events and competitions, there will need to be a mixture of different solutions as well as genuine global commitment to ridding sports (and associated agencies and organisations at both the international and national level) to address and to fight the problem. The IOC’s partial solution (to the problem of how to appropriately penalise the Russians for being out and out cheats at Sochi) was to allow individual Russians to participate next month at PyeongChang as individuals and not part of a national team. This suggests one useful part-solution (i.e. moving away from nationalist teams per se) – except that corporate sponsor and media interests are likely to resist this. In other words, pigs might fly first before international representative sports become drug-free as things presently stand. We believe a more sustainable solution (which we call the ‘Norm’ solution in honor of an infamous fictional Australian cartoon character) is for people to stop just sitting on their sofas and watching sport or reading about it – and to start reclaiming sport from corporate and national government interests by just taking up any particular sport themselves as a leisure activity or hobby for health purposes (the original purpose and meaning of sport in traditional cultures) (19).

5 rodchenkov mastermind..

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