The world felt a knelling sense of loss when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids in Seoul in 1988.
He was stripped of his gold medal and the Olympic Games suffered a black eye. Suddenly we started to question the legitimacy of those who had duped us into believing that they had a rare gift for making hard work look like fun and miracles to seem as easy as a stroll down to the nearest airtime vendor.
Entertainment was removed from the world of sports and sports from the world of entertainment, leaving the Olympic spirit devoid of innocence, enthusiasm and joy. Today, sports news might more appropriately be found under medicine or law or business.
Drugs appeal to society because they deliver a variety of moods and states not immediately available from our surrounding realities.
These may come as complete relaxation, ecstatic happiness, and the negation of suffering, radically transformed perceptions or just a sense of being alert and full of potential energy.
What unites these disparate effects is what is most important of all, however, namely that they make us feel different.
Only the most naïve sports fan can still be shocked to learn that drugs and athletes go together like socks and sweat. The drumbeat of scandal has filled newscasts and sport pages for years with revelation after revelation about world-class competitors taking performance enhancing drugs.
As society, we are thrilled by the louche spectacle, cluck with righteousness and pity yet wondering that inspite the increased attention to the widespread phenomenon of drug abuse, the result has been an unstanchable haemorrhage of recovery monologues and emotional fan dances with a stream of gruesome exhibitionism containing all the aesthetic appeal of a house party at a nursing home.
The 1967 international Olympic committees (IOC) medical code prohibits doping which it defines as “the use of substances belonging to prohibited classes of pharmacological agents and/or the use of prohibited methods”. Since the 1968 summer games in Mexico City, the IOC has been routinely testing competitors for these agents and any athlete caught doping faces the loss of medals including suspension from competition.
Despite a growing regimen of random and stiffer penalties, the use of performance enhancing drugs appear to be a common as ever and athletes readily admit that in some sports it is impossible to compete without using drugs. In sports drugs are a banality.
Ubiquitous as toothpaste and common place as prose, they are nevertheless tinged by nostalgia with an air of iniquity. Most athletes are reluctant to surrender their most basic freedom which is the right to decide for themselves what goes into their bodies and goes on in their minds.
However, freedom of that sort is a romantic ideal, we are modern and medicalised, so how can we survive in a world that does not vigorously police our consciousness?
Athletes argues that doping scandals are much a reflection on us than on them, we demand perfection of them and ask them to be exemplary in every aspect of their lives and they mock our reverence daily.
In that sense people who worship athletes place them on a pedestal an give them larger than life personas with the promise that “all this, we give to you, if you only will show yourself better as well as no better than the rest of us”.
Bob Goldman a prominent Chicago sports physicians and author of death in the locker from polled 198 world-class athletes from ages 16 to 35, asking whether they would take a hypothetical wonder drug that would kill them after five years, but guarantee winning performances until then.
The chilling response was that 52% answered yes.
Stimulants like amphetamines, ephedrine and caffeine were the first substance to land on the IOC’s list of banned substances because they provide a quick pop of energy.
However, it is the new breed of performance enhancing substances that have proved elusive to detect as the pharmacopoeia cornucopia continues to spill out new and refined products.
Anabolic steroids, almost all of them derivatives of the hormone testosterone are the mothers of all doping agents. They remain a mainstay of the resistance training that has spread from bodybuilding to virtually every other sport.
Steroids promote muscular build- up and by most estimates an athlete can improve strength by at least 5% by taking them orally or through injection during high intensity training.
Drug detection machines such as the high resolution mass spectrometer are tuned to detect any synthetic steroid but with little success.
According to Bob Armstrong chief counsel of the Canadian Commission that investigated doping in sport “at competitions you catch people who are either stupid or careless”.
Partly because anabolic steroids are more useful in training than in competition therefore they can be controlled by the athlete going cold-turkey a few weeks before competition and avoiding detection. Another reason in that sports doctors can tinker with the molecular structure of common steroids so they slip through.
There are 72 banned steroids but the testosterone molecule is changeable in millions of ways, all one has to do is make a steroid not on the list. If it seems too risky athletes can use a diuretic which dilutes the urine making the illicit substances virtually undetectable.
For athletes the pressure to win is crushing, the millisecond difference between gold and silver can amount to millions in endorsement contracts and appearance fees. Therefore testing positive is no reason to hang their heads in shame and forgo millions of dollars in advertising revenue.
The new tactic; just hire a lawyer and challenge it. Although sports legislators have come up with a strict and unified testing system with perfect rules and procedures, today’s legal battles show that athletes are ready to pounce on any fault real or perceived in drug testing procedures.
Aided by lawyers and trainers, athletes quickly launch counterattacks claiming procedural irregularities in the testing. The most common counter charge is that the urine sample was tampered with on its way to the labs or that it has been manipulated by someone other than the athlete.
There is strong belief among athletes that when you have enough money enough sponsors and enough good lawyers you can get around the system.
Athletes take drugs not because they are more corrupt or more stupid than their fans but because they are more ambitious and more ensnared in what amounts to an unforgiving work environment.
Victory means adulation and respect. Defeat for too many means losing the ticket to the only life-style they have ever prepared for.
However, if dopers keep getting a free pass, the luster of the Olympic rings already so tarnished will dim even more.