The Guardian view on drugs in sport: a deep corruption | Editorial

A devastating report from a parliamentary select committee shows a culture of studied evasion around the abuse of performance-enhancing substances in professional sport

What is the point of sport? The recent death of Sir Roger Bannister, who ran the world’s first four-minute mile in 1954 while he was a medical student training in his time off, suggested one answer. The publication two days later of a devastating report into doping in cycling and athletics by a parliamentary select committee suggests a rather different one. Sebastian Coe, a Conservative peer who had held, as a professional, the world mile record that had once been Bannister’s, gave a dismal showing in his testimony about his time in the International Association of Athletics Federations. Before becoming president Lord Coe was vice-president for eight years, a period in which one of the then president’s sons was, the IAAF said, taking bribes to expunge the records of failed drug tests on Russian athletes. He told the committee that he was aware only in the vaguest terms of suspicions about the organised, industrial-scale doping of Russian athletes, and the possible involvement of the president. Later an email came to light showing him forwarding detailed allegations from a whistleblower to the head of the Federation’s ethics committee (a body that does in fact exist) although he says he never read them. The committee observed that his account of his own incuriosity about these allegations “stretches credibility”. It further described his reason for not publishing a scientific study into the prevalence of doping in athletics as “frankly risible”.

Over in the world of professional cycling, Team Sky, founded to “win clean”, turns out to have had a terrible problem with asthma among its athletes. Sir Bradley Wiggins apparently suffered from an asthma that could only be treated with a steroid which has the side-effect of allowing endurance athletes to lose fat rapidly while maintaining muscle mass. This is legal provided a doctor has certified that the drug is needed to treat the asthma. Body weight is extremely important to road cyclists: when Sir Bradley raced in the Olympics on a flat track, he weighed 82kg; competing later over the mountains of the Tour de France, he weighed only 72kg. The rigours of training needed to lose so much weight from the body of an Olympic athlete can only be imagined. The evidence given to the committee – as well as the refusal of the team’s then doctor to clarify one vital point – suggest that when Sir Bradley won the Tour de France in 2012 he may have been treated with this steroid at a time when he had applied for, but not yet received, the necessary certificate of exemption. Since the records have been lost, if they ever existed, we will never be sure. Sir Bradley strongly denies any wrongdoing.

Performance-enhancing drugs in sport need to be suppressed for three reasons. They can damage an athlete’s physical health, especially important when their bodies are still growing. Once past a certain threshold, they corrupt the whole sport, as happened with professional cycling in the 90s, when no one who did not cheat stood a chance of winning. Perhaps worst of all, they make it seem that the only point of competing is to win. This is a hugely damaging attitude, although it permeates almost all professional and televised sports, where the financial rewards for winners can be quite grotesque. Yet sport has moral or mental benefits as well as physical ones. That’s why the state should encourage mass participation, and most of the people who do that will never be champions. They need to be taught to want to win and how to lose gracefully. Coping with failure while reaching for success means our role models should not be cyclists, or track athletes, but the England football team.



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