Imagine a world where nothing is beyond human capabilities. A slightly vague and philosophical opening statement I’ll concede, one which may have prompted you to re-read the title amidst confusion. But stay with me. Imagine a world where men and women could run the 100m in faster than 9.5 seconds, then faster than 9 seconds, and maybe even faster than 8 seconds. One where human beings can long jump 10m, high jump 3m and sprint the 1500m. World records would fall like dominoes, and viewers would watch in awe as the world’s best athletes amazed us again and again and again. These are the kinds of performances we could expect, were performance enhancing drugs to be legalised in athletics, so many may just think, well; why not?
Take the spike in the use of Erythropoietin (EPO) as an example. EPO is glycoprotein hormone that controls the production of red blood cells, and is the most common performance enhancing drug used in blood-doping. Quite simply, injecting EPO, and therefore increasing levels of it in the bloodstream, increases the production of red blood cells, consequently meaning the amount of oxygen that can be transported to the muscles during exercise is significantly higher than normal. Considering the delivery of oxygen to the muscles is a major limiting factor to the muscles’ ability to sustain endurance type exercises, it is easy to see why athletes use this to increase their capacity for endurance. What is even more alarming is that one of the main testing methods implemented by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)- the biological passport- is not sensitive enough to identify abnormal levels of Erythropoietin; in short, as investigative journalist and keen triathlete Mark Daly proved earlier this year, blood-dopers can get away with it.
As incredible as this may seem, the benefit of hindsight would surely come back to haunt us, so the case I put to you is this: at a time when drug testing is evidently failing, we must not concede to dishonesty or deception, and allow a sport loved by millions to become nothing more than a computer game. Any admiration for the giants of world athletics would vanish in an instant if their chosen event, whatever it may be, was simply a walk in the park in terms of exertion, and their achievements weren’t really theirs at all. Isn’t Usain Bolt, the world’s greatest ever sprinter, all the more compelling to watch when his rivals are right on his tail, pushing him towards the line? The atmosphere inside the London Olympic stadium during the final 800m in the women’s heptathlon was electrifying purely because we, as a nation, knew how many years of hard work the ‘poster girl’ of the games, Jessica Ennis, had dedicated to reaching the pinnacle of sporting excellence. The thrill spectators feel watching Bolt, Ennis or any athlete is a result of three things- pride, respect, and a love for the sport. Pride in their country, and its ability to develop honest and talented athletes, respect for the athletes who dedicate their lives to their sport, and a sheer love for what they’re witnessing.
It is perhaps now easier to see, then, why comments such as “who cares, they’re all on drugs” are not as offhand as they may have intended to be. For an honest athlete, comments like these and the doping scandals that have hit the headlines in recent months, including an alleged cover-up by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), are damaging to say the least. They represent a betrayal of trust, not only from fellow competitors but from the global athletics board that is supposed to protect both amateur and professional athletes from drugs cheats. Professional athletes lining up on the start line an Olympic final is where every amateur athlete wants to be, so revelations that ambassadors for the sport such as Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin have cheated their way to the top means we can’t help but doubt countless other successful athletes of our generation. The fact that the selfish actions of a few forces us to do this is a sad truth for everybody involved in the sport.
The problems doping cause run deep, and they are never more apparent than now. Every week, it seems, a new athlete or country or project is exposed for cheating, lies, deception and falsehoods, characteristics that are criminal in sport if not by law. This generation has produced some of the finest athletes the world has ever seen- a golden era for athletics, you could say- but behind all the glitz and glamour and gold lies a sport marred by scandal and corruption, now more than ever. Only recently, Russia was suspended from all major competition until a full investigation into the extent of its doping programme is concluded; this problem is so severe that an entire nation has been banned from competing in one of the world’s best-loved sports, honest athletes included.
Sadly, recent estimates indicate that as many as a third of the world’s top athletes have admitted to violating anti-doping laws. One third. This number would be even higher if every guilty athlete admitted so. As it stands, 6 athletes have been stripped of their London 2012 Olympic medals because of doping, with American sprinter Tyson Gay cheating the rest of his team out of an honest and fair 4x100m relay medal. But doping is not just about numbers. It’s about people. Thousands upon thousands of athletes, coaches, journalists, reporters, spectators and enthusiasts. There are as many different reasons for loving this sport as there are people who are part of it, so to see a pall cast over the sport loved by so many is heart-breaking, and forces the basic principles of human decency to come under scrutiny.
Is there a solution in sight, then? The appointment of British middle-distance legend Lord Sebastian Coe as President of the IAAF is a cause for hope for the future of athletics. The momentous task he faces is repairing the image and integrity of a sport battered and bruised by doping scandals, something he’s pledged to tackle from the moment he was elected. To repair the damage, there is no doubt that a thorough investigation will be carried out with no stone left unturned, even if it means delving into the IAAF itself. UK Athletics chairman Ed Warner echoes the sentiments of many when he says “If there is one person that I know will pursue cheats to all four corners of the earth, it is Seb”. Can Sebastian Coe truly ‘fix’ athletics, or does the intricate web of drugs cheats expand far further than we will ever realise, or are even willing to discover? One thing is certain: professional athletics needs this kind of intervention if it is to ever to recover from the scandals 2015 has brought.