Drugs and sport

August 21st, 2004 | by Andrew Ó Baoill |

The Irish Times had an interesting piece by the academic Lincoln Allison, in which he advocated for the use of drugs in sport. I was fascinated. I felt there was something problematic about it – especially his contemplation of corporate (drug company) sponsorship of athletes, as walking billboards – but it’s not an area I know a lot about, or have given much thought to.

So I emailed my sister, Heather. Heather is a rower, and narrowly missed out on qualification for the Olympics this year. Here’s what she had to say.

I read the article you were talking about, and yes, you can see the lure of using a substance to enhance your performance, but where is the fun in that? For me sport is a challenge, an internal struggle to fine tune my ability in order to place me on a world field, and of course to be the best. The best that I can be, and hope to God that I can be the best in the world.

Athletes take drugs in order to speed up recovery, to build muscles, to increase the production of red bleed cells, oxygen intake etc. I train using varying programmes to improve my recovery, I eat properly and wrap myself in bubblewrap in order to protect myself from illness and injury, this also helps recovery and capacity to train. The fitter you get the better your recovery,

In order to build muscle I lift weights. They mightn’t be the heaviest weights, or I may not have the best technique, but it makes me stronger. I eat protein straight after (like a ham sandwhich or a glass of milk!) and I am consistently, slowly but surely, getting stronger.

I have acknowledged the limits of my body, and I constantly try to push them. If I was to use another substance to alter my body, I would be changing my own make up. The challenge of being the best that I can be would be a farce, I would be becoming somebody else.

I hate when media, or observers use the argument that you are letting down your country, your sport, your supporters. That may be so, but you are letting yourself down. You have created somebody else and have tried to pass them off as you. The media has come to know the drug fuelled person you have created, and the supporters has jumped on the band wagon. Fair enough you have brought negative attention to your sport, but in most sports there are saints and sinners every year – some heroes emerge, but most wrongdoers are quickly forgotten. If you are the drug taker you will live with your cheating past forever.

Maybe it is easy for me to take this stance because in rowing there is no financial reward, the glory is fleeting from the recognition side, so the rewards are personal. You win a big race, attain a personal goal and you pat yourself on the back and plan your next conquest. If you have cheated yourself how could you possibly sit back and congratulate yourself in the same way?

In cycling and athletics there is often a lot of money rewarded as prizes which extends the lure, I am sure. This means that there is a greater use of stimulants and a vicious circle of personal drive, ambition and greed can ensue. This does not forgive the athlete who cheats. It angers me because the essence of sport, of challenge, and thrashing certain limits is lost. A cheat is still a cheat, but the person sho is cheating is also the one being cheated.

In sport at an elite level (any level I guess), one of the greatest mottos is to control what you can control. In other words athletes should not get caught up in who is or isn’t possibly taking drugs, but focus on improving their own performance. Unfortunately in some sports participants get distracted by what is happening around them and consequently doubt their own ability and desperately go on a quest to become somebody else.

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