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Unmixing Sports And Drugs

Tour De France

As the Tour de France bicycle race limped across the finish line on the Champs-lyses here on Aug. 2, the scandal that led half the riders to quit early also tore another veil from an ill-kept secret: the widespread use of drugs to boost athletic performance.

With dozens of riders, their coaches, and their doctors under police investigation - and public attention focused on doping - the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has called a conference next January to tackle drug use in sports.

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But in a world where few frown on a cup of coffee to perk up in the morning, and where money now plays such an integral role in sports, officials say it is hard to convince athletes not to take performance-enhancing drugs.

"Culturally we live in a society that encourages doping for everybody, so that makes it more difficult for us," says Francois Carrard, the IOC director general. "Sport is a mirror of society."

Doping in sports is hardly new. Body-building steroids and other energy-giving and pain-reducing drugs, many of which are associated with health risks, have become increasingly prevalent.

The drug at the center of the Tour de France scandal, EPO, is a genetically engineered copy of a natural hormone that boosts endurance. It is thought to be in wide use in sports such as cycling and cross-country skiing, and is so far undetectable since tests cannot distinguish between the artificial and the naturally occurring hormone.

"You can make the rules stricter, but clever doctors can get around them all too easily," comments Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, in Boston.

Protecting athletes

The emergence of EPO has raised the question of just what constitutes doping. Athletes can also increase endurance by training at high altitudes or by "blood packing" - extracting some of their blood, allowing the body to replace it, and then reinjecting what had been removed. Neither practice is illegal.

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At the same time, some body-building products are banned, while others are not. "Where does doping begin?" wonders Mr. Carrard. "There are many cases where it is not as easy as people think to draw the exact line."

The IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, recently said that athletes should be allowed to use any products that don't damage their health.

"Doping now is everything that firstly is harmful to an athlete's health and secondly, artificially augments his performance," he told El Mundo, a Spanish newspaper. "If it's just the second case, for me that's not doping. If it's the first case, it is."

This prompted an outcry from critics, who asked how Mr. Samaranch defined dangerous. The stir also prodded Primo Nebiolo, president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, to back the IOC call for a conference on drug use.

"The problem of doping is a problem that affects the whole of the sports movement," he says. "We are at a crossroads now and we cannot afford to take the wrong route."

The conference will seek a common international definition of doping, more effective sanctions against violators, a clearer list of banned substances, and simpler testing procedures, according to the IOC's Carrard.

But the Tour de France affair has also prompted observers to wonder whether the current practice of leaving drug control and testing to national and international sports federations - or to the professional sports leagues in the United States - is sufficient.

"The natural inclination of sports authorities is to protect their games and their athletes," says Dr. Lapchick. "Without external scrutiny the more likely reaction is to ignore signs that you have a problem."

The suspicions of hypocrisy have led some commentators to suggest that performance-enhancing drugs should be allowed. They point out that harried executives use Prozac to enhance their efficiency and that nobody impugns works of art if they are inspired by drugs.

But the authorities insist that sports must be different - and abide by different rules.

"We are talking about youth here," says Carrard. "Sport is a very positive aspect of education and the whole concept is based on respect - respect for the rules, for other competitors, and respect for your body."

At the same time, points out Till Lufft, the secretary general of the European Athletics Association, "we have to think not just about top competitive sports events but about the majority of athletes, and about parents sending their children to clubs.

"If they thought drugs were common in sports, or necessary to certain achievements, they would never let their children go," he says.

And at the top level, sports heroes are role models for young people.

"Because of its high profile nature, sport has a leadership role to play," argues Lapchick. "We can go out front, if we can show children that there are consequences to negative behavior."

Winning is everything

The problem, though, is that top-level sports worldwide have long left the world of education behind, and with it the old concept that taking part in a game is as important as winning.

Basketball, football, cycling, and other major sports "have become sport as spectacle," says Marie-George Buffet, the French sports minister who launched the anti-doping campaign that targeted the Tour de France. "When you treat sports as a commodity, this is what happens."

Indeed, a great deal of money is attached to winning today. "We have raised the stakes so high in terms of what it means to win and to lose," says Lapchick, "that it adds to the possibility of athletes cutting those corners to achieve that victory."

Against this background, he warns, "in this modern society, to think of sport as drug free is naive."

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