A critique of elite sport

Quit Alcohol

How To Control Alcohol by Seb Grant

Get Instant Access

The early discourses on anti-doping, from the mid 1950s onwards, can be interpreted in a number of ways. They may be an overinflated attempt to moralise and establish control over sport and over deviant sections of society. They may be a projection on to sport of middle-class anxieties about drug misuse, sexual profligacy, political radicalism, and cultural decadence. They may represent a clash of cultures between generations: the pre-war sober, austere, amateurs up against the progressive nationalistic, professional and scientifically inclined post-war innovators. These are interconnected and each a partial explanation. However, just as interesting was the manner in which sport itself came under discussion around that period in a way that rarely occurred from the 1970s onwards. The ideology underlying elite competitive sport is now a consensus, and any one who challenges it will probably be dismissed as a neo-Marxist, wishy-washy liberal, or jealous failed athlete.

There are two questions here. First, was doping the consequence of elite sport itself? Second, was anti-doping a genuine response to changes in sport that began in the early post-war period and were enhanced in the 1960s?

The reasons why athletes turn to drugs is because they are driven by internal and external pressures that supersede any sense that sport should be enjoyably competitive and socially valuable. In 1953 E. McDonald Bailey, the Trinidadian sprinter who competed for England, offered his view on sportsmanship, 'I do not advocate a win-at-all-costs approach. Always keep inside the rules of the game and the accepted ethics of moral conduct' (1953: 100). That did not mean giving up easily or not enjoying the thrill of victory, but that a line should be drawn before the athlete resorts to cheating. Of course, it could easily be argued that since drug use was not banned during the 1950s there was nothing in this definition of sportsmanship to prevent someone taking amphetamines, strychnine, cocaine or any other such drug. Bailey made reference to the controversy over Douglas Jardine's captaincy of the England cricket team that went to Australia to employ the 'bodyline' bowling technique that targeted the batsman's body. He sees this as acceptable as victory was the principle objective and the methods used were within the laws of the game. It might be argued that the backlash against Jardine was simply the traditionalists' retort to a moderniser.

So doping cannot simply be seen as a transgression of sportsmanship when that could include 'borderline' legal strategies. Nor can doping be simply connected to professionalism. The desire to boost performance can be seen throughout the twentieth century. The other external pressure was national prestige, but it was more club level success than national prestige that inspired football managers to give drugs to their players. And it was individual success that motivated cyclists and many track and field athletes.

Perhaps the real flaw in these sorts of explanations is that they construct doping as a problem. Even theories which point to personal obsession, insecurities, anxieties, fear of failure, and all-consuming will to win, suggest something is fundamentally wrong with the soul of the athlete. However, writers on wider drug use in society have argued that governmental and other authoritarian discourses from the eighteenth century onwards deny the essential 'pleasure' inherent in drug use:

A number of quite diverse official discourses across a long time span, from the 'beastliness' of 18 th century vice to 'social determination' of modernist criminology, turn out to have one feature in common: problematic activities are managed and discussed in ways that deny or silence the voluntary and reasonable seeking of enjoyment as warrantable motives. Governmental discourses about drugs and alcohol, in particular, tend to remain silent about pleasure as a motive for consumption, and raise instead visions of a consumption characterized by compulsion, pain and pathology. Problematic substance use is said to be caused not by pleasure-seeking but by such things as the 'slavery of the will' characteristic of alcoholics; by the 'behavioural stimuli' of many current psychological theories of 'craving'; or by some other bodily, social or psychological failing or deficit that pushes people to act 'unreasonably'.

(O'Malley and Valverde 2004: 26)

The tendency to argue that doped athletes are irrational obsessives who have lost control of their minds and are willing to punish their bodies distracts us from the possibility that some athletes might choose to dope, that they might take pleasure in it, and might have perfectly rationalised logical reasons for doing so. The pleasure comes from winning so the logic behind doping is actually the logic of sport itself. When critics try to impose a framework of risk they are effectively missing the point. A joyless life of losing is nothing to an athlete who seeks the pleasures of success. This is not about money or social status or bringing prestige to a local or national community. As Verner M0ller has argued, athletes 'participate because they are attracted to the competition. The contest is the motivation' (2003: 16). This is about sport, about winning: the desire that drives an athlete to train and compete is precisely the same desire that leads them to dope. Trying to draw a line between the two is, for many, abstract and pointless.

Which brings us to the second question, was anti-doping a response to changes in sport? Those working inside sport must have realised that drugs were increasingly a part of the scene in a number of places. Drugs created a type of unfairness, a boost that had not been earned by training or by developing skill techniques. Once a number of competitors used them, they all had to, if the pleasures of success and the logic of the will to win remained motivating factors. In 1960, Tommy Simpson told a journalist, 'I am up there with the stars, but then suddenly they will go away from me. I know from the way they ride the next day that they are taking dope. I don't want to have to take it - I have too much respect for my body - but if I don't win a big event soon, I shall have to start taking it' (cited in Fotheringham 2003: 148).

Early anti-doping pioneers did not like the drugs that were being used which had a poor reputation in society that reflected badly on sport. They did not like the extent of drug use that would lead eventually to all athletes feeling obliged to use them. They also thought success had to be fought for, not handed out on a plate, drunk from a bottle or injected. However, sport was showing other signs of excess: political tensions in the Cold War rivalry; conspicuous alcoholism and sexual promiscuity among players; and an erosion of the ideals of playing the game and gentlemanly conduct. The hopeful motto of the traditional pedagogues, 'it's not the winning but the taking part that counts', was a joke.

If the problem of doping lies in the logic of sport it worsened through the post-war decades as training methods began to take over athletes' lives. Such were the increased standards of competition that in order to achieve anything at international level, potentially talented athletes had to be identified and developed at the earliest opportunity and then had to dedicate themselves to their sport. When children as young as six or seven years old are streamlined into sports, perhaps even taken out of normal schools to attend specialist sports academies, clearly the desire to produce winning athletes has gone too far. Even if the training regimes are not imposed until later in life, athletes can become institutionalised, have a narrow set of skills, and little contact with the outside world. They sacrifice the usual rites of passage of teenage years in favour of their sporting career. Moreover, their bodies are delicate machines that operate at the optimal level of performance, having been worked upon by coaches, nutritionists and scientists for several years. If elite sport produces the obsessed, focused, asocial types who eventually take drugs as one more element in their preparation for events, then the critical focus must widen. Doping may simply be a convenient scapegoat that draws attention from the heart of the matter - the logic and structure of sport itself.

James Riordan's writings on the Soviet Union are far more critical of the overall problems of systematic, almost ruthless, talent identification than of the doping which was simply one more symptom of a deeper malaise. The GDR focused on sports as a means of displaying nationality on the world stage, and the institutionalisation of sports medicine and talent development happened in parallel with doping. The high social status given to successful athletes in America from high school upwards means that finding that extra edge for victory would have a longer-term benefit for individuals.

It was the demands of long events and over 200 days a year of racing that many cyclists used to justify their use of drugs. In 1967 the top Belgian rider Rik Van Steenbergen wrote in a newspaper article:

I've had to drive to Paris, then immediately after the race get back in my car for a 10-hour trip to Stuttgart where I had to get on my bike at once. There was nothing to do. An organiser would want this star or that one on the bill. He would pay for it. Another would want the same ones the next day, and the public wanted something for its money. As a result, the stars had to look fresh in every race, and they couldn't do that without stimulants. There are no supermen. Doping is necessary in cycling.

(cited in Fotheringham 2003: 166)

For all that Pierre Dumas, Albert Dirix and Ludwig Prokop worried about the amounts and types of drugs cyclists were using, none of them spoke up to say the conditions under which cyclists operated were fundamentally to blame. It was easier to focus on sportsmanship, individual behaviour, and constructing methods of detection. The same can be said for Olympic anti-doping. The problem was never related to the frenzy and hype over the quadrennial event itself but to the fringe minority of cheats who had poor ethical principles and needed to be rooted out through efficient testing procedures. The fact that anti-doping was led by the IOC means that critical reflection on Olympic sports culture and processes was never going to happen. Instead, the metaphors used suggested a healthy 'body' which was being attacked from the outside by 'disease'. As Arnold Beckett put it, 'deaths in sport were necessary before leaders and legislators were shaken out of their complacency and mobilized a counterattack upon the cancer which had been established in the body of sport and was becoming increasingly invasive' (1988: 655).

Yet sport is fundamentally about winning, hierarchy, elitism and losers get nothing. It encourages people to think of others as enemies. Bias and partisanship are actively promoted. It demarcates the best from the rest, it is all about physical and social superiority. It is a harsh system that is not just intolerant towards failure but explicitly rejects those who fail. It favours the economically developed countries who can provide their athletes with the best resources and who can 'cherry-pick' talent from underdeveloped countries. Meanwhile, the futile use of money in professional sport stands as a tragic waste when so much of the world remains poverty-stricken. In other words, sport needed to be critically assessed - the 'panic' over doping was a smokescreen.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Alcohol No More

Alcohol No More

Do you love a drink from time to time? A lot of us do, often when socializing with acquaintances and loved ones. Drinking may be beneficial or harmful, depending upon your age and health status, and, naturally, how much you drink.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment