Tours and Drugs are on the roll

Dwain Chambers by Steve Punter via Wikimedia Commons

The British Olympic Association announced on Tuesday its squad for this summer’s events. Among the list of hopefuls is one man who, in 2003, was banned from the sport for two years. Following a subsequent BOA investigation, he was prohibited from ever participating in Olympic competition.  His crime? The use of the performance enhancing drug THG. His guilt? Conclusive. His confession? Hazy: in interviews, Dwain Chambers has drifted between professing ignorance to a more resounding admission that he is, “not really the individual that wanted to wait for the results to come”.  What bad luck, I mused, as I read an interview in which Chambers equates his drug abuse to his impatience for results. Of all the rigours that befall athletes, what compelled Mr Chambers to resort to the method that all acknowledge is the most toxic aspect of this sport was simple impatience. Moreover, he seems to assume that such a desperate unwillingness to wait, justifies his crime- when offered the drug, he reasons the decision was a “no brainer”: patience is a virtue, the moral among us might tell him; crime does not pay; cheats never win. Yet, earlier this year, the Court of Arbitration for Sport over-turned the BOA’s decision, erasing Chamber’s past. Come August, the London born athlete will line up in the 100m alongside the world’s best. Now clean, Chambers will not win- but participating on home soil, on the sport’s biggest stage is a disingenuous victory for a man who should still be wallowing in the sporting wilderness.

Performance enhancing drugs have long been part of endurance sports – though, not always have they been outlawed. Competing in the 1904 Olympic marathon, the American, Thomas Hicks, was injected several times during the race itself with strychnine. Hicks won, and received widespread praise for his “innovative tactics”. Likewise, in the 1924 edition of the Tour de France, one cyclist’s confession that each athlete “ran off dynamite” met with little objection.  As the dawn of anabolic steroids swept the sporting world, promising rapid gains in strength, size and speed, so more athletes were lured- blind to its dangers. One study in 1984 suggests that at that year’s Olympic games 61% of the entire field had taken anabolic steroids in the past six months. Only four years later, the Canadian, Ben Johnson, was stripped of his victory in the 100m final after the prohibited substance stanozolol was found in his urine, and the second placed competitor, Carl Lewis, was awarded the title. Though it would not be revealed for several years, Lewis had taken the same substance as his jilted rival: his test had been concealed by the United States Olympic Committee- his triumph achieved, and then legitimised, by deceit.

Last week, the 99th edition of the Tour de France began in Belgium. Its most prolific combatant since its conception, Lance Armstrong, has for years been embroiled in a case for the alleged use of androstenine. There is no clear evidence of Armstrong’s guilt: no papers that were conveniently misplaced; no confession from the athlete himself; no bribes, lies, or positive tests. Only stories- tales from fellow athletes who claim to have seen Armstrong use the drug. Others are convinced of his guilt by the perceived impossibility of his success. Armstrong won seven consecutive Tour de France races, interrupted only by a successful duel with testicular cancer – a near miraculous feat, made more astounding still by the fact that he beat competitors who have since confessed to have been “riding dirty”. Should it be proven though, that Armstrong was indeed guilty, as many assume that he is, his greatness as a cyclist need not be dismantled. As a sportsman, he may morally be corrupt, but he is, at worst, the tainted  champion of a dirty bunch.

Endurance sport’s enduring problem is that tests to source the cheats are constantly menaced by the evolution of the drugs themselves- forever more difficult to trace, they become ever more attractive to those athletes, like Chambers, who seek an artificial boost to reach the level of the naturally superior. The elite, conscious of what the authorities are not, aware of their competitors lurid attempts to succeed, are left with little choice but to succumb to the same poisonous method that threaten their superiority so that they are able to maintain it. The only means by which this chain of deceit can be broken is by the ruthless punishment of the guilty. Castigate the example, and the others will run in fear. That Dwain Chambers shall line up this summer on the world’s biggest stage guarantees the deterioration of an issue his exclusion could have begun to dismantle.