In the wake of the published revelations about the Lance Armstrong Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED) affair, a number of issues have obviously been raised.
In numerous publications and by people with much greater knowledge of both cycling and of the issue of drugs in sport in general, the whole sorry matter has been analysed in some detail.
There are clearly issues within this matter of honesty, the testing process, the systematic implementation of cheating and win-at-all costs by teams, people’s willingness to affect their body in the short and long term for glory, as well as the increasing physical demands of the European cycling tour and the money involved in professional sport.
However, one issue that bears consideration is the whole notion of what performance enhancement means. And in addition, what is acceptable and what is breaking the rules.
By its very meaning, PED is something you can take or administer which will make your athletic performance better. In most situations, and very much in relation to the Armstrong et al. case, it is about taking chemical stimulants or changing the biological format of your body to enable you to do thing you wouldn’t normally be able to do.
Despite being one of those who held out, mostly through naive idealism (i.e. I just didn’t want it to be true) about Armstrong’s now clear and unambiguous guilt, I think we need to consider what is meant by PED.
A drug is I suppose a chemical composition that allows the body to feel better, feel different, and allow you to do or feel something that you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t taken it, and that allows you to have an edge. It allows you to be better than you are naturally, to get ahead of other people with similar natural ability.
There are definitely some drugs which you would imagine would hinder performance, and so they aren’t usually covered. Sports seem to call them recreational drugs, and we can put aside moral arguments about what sort of recreation they offer or what impact they have on performance
However, there seem to be some agents, tablets, processes or procedures that allow you to do the same, but we, or sport, have no problem with.
In any sport, the object is to create an advantage over your opposition. This of course takes many forms. The best way of creating an advantage is to simply have a more talented group of players and ensure they are well directed, coached and organised than the people you are playing.
After that, advantages come from things like better communication, skills, strength, tactics and coaching, which allow you to win. All these thing are legitimate.
Then you get to areas that are unique to your team, which allow you to gain an advantage. This can be nutrition, set plays, specific motivation, extra resources, recovery initiatives or injury management.
There are the emotional and psychological factors that enable teams to believe they have an advantage, or to actually have one.
But to me, there’s an interesting gap between those legitimate areas of sport and the outlawed area, of drugs and EPO.
Where for example do pain killing injections come into things?
Steroids enable a person to be stronger artificially, to speed up the body’s ability to grow muscle and strength, which in contact sports especially, is an advantage. This is unfair in that it discriminates against the person who tries to develop strength naturally, through gym work for example.
However, a pain killing injection allows an injured player to effectively mask his injury and inability to perform and allows him (or her) to continue to participate.
This could be seen as similar. Pain killers are, in my limited non-technical and scientific understanding, a collection of chemicals that don’t so much heal the injury but allow you to not be aware of it or impeded by it. It temporarily stops the pain that would under normal circumstances, not allow your body to perform as you need it to in a sporting contest.
That’s different to a physio working on a muscle or a knee being strapped. That is designed to heal or allow your body to compensate for the injury, or restrict the impediment. It’s also different to something that takes the injury away, like a head ache tablet or something that helps with gastro for example.
I don’t think there’s any argument that we all wish to see an even playing field where it is skill vs. skill, and if there are areas in which you can gain a clever advantage, all credit to you.
Equally, your ability to access dangerous chemicals and blood transfusions would be seen by all expect the delusional as being beyond the pale.
But there is to me a strange middle ground that warrants debate.
PED include masking agents, i.e. things that stop a tester’s ability to identify drugs in your body. In a similar way, do pain killing injections merely mask the actual injury’s existence from the mind and allow you to perform?
Ted Richards needed numerous injections to even walk, let alone run and jump, otherwise he would not have been able to play in this year’s Grand Final. Brisbane in one of their GFs vs. the Pies had about half the team on (legitimate) pre-game injections. These are all acceptable, but ethically, legally, morally, why do we condone them? How far is that from a player who takes chemicals we consider illegal that allows him to play better on the day? The line I suppose is that one is banned and one not, making one legal and the other illegal. However, sporting leagues have changed their rules about simulants and tablets with knee jerks reactions before, as the AFL did with Stillnox this year.
It begs the question then. What defines enhancement of performance and what gets ticked and what gets crossed.
This approach may be seen as naïve. However, by extension of our criticism over Armstrong’s desire to add to his (accepted) natural ability with stimulants and injections to create an unfair advantage over people that didn’t take them, where does acceptable and unacceptable meet?
I don’t have an issue, per se, with pain killers. And I at pains to ensure that I don’t compare Armstrong’s decade long set of lies, deception and theft to a few pre-game jabs on a reputable Swans defender, and there should be no outcry against Richards’s good name.
But in the wake of the revelations about gaining advantage, should we look at what advantage really means and constitutes?