Steroids on my muesli

Performance enhancing drugs

(December 18, 2017) The recent ‘shocking’ (mock shocked face) revelation in the press that up to 80 Kiwi athletes have been caught up in a PED (performance enhancing drugs) bust is all a little bit disingenuous and very much ‘non-shocking’ – really, this should be no surprise! Just because we are perched out here on the edge of the earth (a shout out to the flat earthers) doesn’t mean that New Zealand is immune to the pressures in sport and society, and the ubiquitous influences of various digital media. I don’t buy the clean, green, rose-tinted view of New Zealand sport – we are not and have never been squeaky clean. Our All Blacks harbour some of the best cheats in the game, we’ve won America’s Cups in courtrooms, we have our share of rogues and sporting vagabonds, and we are no better or worse than most other nations.

So far only two ice-hockey playing brothers have been tagged and named in the drug scandal. I know the young men and their family (not closely but I referee in the local ice hockey community). They are nice, athletic young guys, very good at their sport, highly skilled and very competitive. I’m not writing to condone or condemn drugs in sport – I’m still on the fence on that one – or take a shot at the young men. But I wonder what makes people take sport so seriously that they think they need to do something like this in order to be successful. Any thoughts of cheating aside I’m trying hard to understand why somebody would a). feel the pressure at this level to take some unknown substance to obtain physical gains when ice hockey in NZ is more about skill, and b). why someone who as worked so hard in their sport now looks to take a shortcut to ‘personal achievement’ in the sport – that’s disrespecting the sport.

Julian Savulescu and colleagues wrote an intriguing piece ‘Why we should allow performance enhancing drugs in sport’ in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (2004). One of the points that resonated for me was their claim that it should be OK for individuals to take PEDs to correct for natural inequalities . Their point of course acknowledges the huge individual differences in the physiques and physiologies of humans. What could be the harm, they argue, in allowing someone with a naturally low level of testosterone from boosting their levels up to that of their competitors – surely that’s the concept of a level playing field!

They also make the argument that has bugged me for years – if we really have drug testing to keep things clean, make things fair and protect athlete’s health, how can you reconcile those espoused values when competition is never fair. It’s not fair that some people live at altitude, have professional coaches and unlimited access to emerging technologies, when their competitors don’t. It also seems to me that athletes go to much greater risks using new and untested drugs, and dubious masking agents, all usually without appropriate medical oversight – to avoid detection that is purportedly in place to protect their health. Seems there’s a big game going on in parallel – the drug detection game – with a lot of big money and gravy train riding on the side.

I’m staying on the fence and that’s a comfortable place for this 10th man to be in this debate.