Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Do the drugs work?

Moving back to more English sports, the "sensational" news in football the past few days has been that Adrian Mutu has tested positive for cocaine. Apart from the fact this doesn't surprise me - there are bound to be more than a few football stars on some sort of recreational drug given the amount of money they make and the fame that comes upon them so quickly - I can't help be struck by the hypocritical reaction of much of the media.

Now, I may dislike the use of recreational drugs, but when we are dealing with them in a sporting sense, they are of little material benefit to a sportsman's performance. Mutu may be stupid on many counts - not just in taking the drug, but arousing the suspicion of his manager, greatly reducing his position as a role model, damaging his chances of lucrative sponsorship details, and so on - but as far as actually being a cheat is concerned, he is innocent.

Not much more than a week ago, Arsene Wenger made far more dangerous, worrying, and sweeping allegations about prevalent drug use in many leading clubs. In particular, he accuses leading clubs of systematically injecting their players with EPO - the drug which has caused such trials and tribulations in professional cycling, and is undoubtedly performance-enhancing. And yet, under the WADA code that the football authorities have signed up to, the maximum bans for being found taking cocaine and EPO are exactly the same. Even worse, the FA do not systematically test for EPO - not before Wenger's allegations, not afterwards. And evidence in Italy suggests that the Juventus team of the mid-1990s was full of people with abnormally high red-blood cell counts - a classic sign of EPO use (and indeed the test for EPO in professional cycling).

Football is not the only sport to have a hypocritical attitude towards drugs. American football punishes the use of cannabis more strongly than players found to have used the "designer steroid" THG, on the grounds that those caught using THG did so when it wasn't on the banned list - again, completely ignoring the fact the only reason for taking THG is to artificially improve performance. Cyclists, too, take action to limit the success of riders who make accusations of widespread drug use. Protecting their own, maybe, but doing nothing to help reclaim the image of a sport irrecovably tarnished by the image of doping.

And yet all the moral indignation at any kind of drug use is irrelevant if we are not actually going to make strident efforts to rid the game of people gaining an unfair advantage over the others. I hold a fairly controversial opinion on drugs - namely, that if we have no efficient means of testing who is and who isn't using drugs, we might as well allow the use of all of them. Otherwise we only punish the honest and the stupid. If, as I suspect, masking agents are becoming increasingly effective; if, as I suspect, sporting organisations tolerate large amounts of doping to allow their athletes to be the best, then we might as well level the playing field. If everyone is allowed to take whatever they want, knowing the risks that they take while they are doing it, then no-one sportsman gains an unfair advantage over another. Yes, it might give an advantage to those who can work with the best doctors, but that's no different to the advantage given to players and teams working with the best coaches. It would just become another factor in preparation.

I must stress I don't actually want this situation to come to pass. But when you see cyclists travel at the pace they do, up mountains, day after day; when you see abnormally huge American football players; when you see players with previously normal physiques become chunky and muscular, then you have your doubts about whether our current testing systems are appropriate. And if it is then considered that football doesn't test at all for one of the most well-known drugs in sport, you have to wonder what people do get away with using. If we have no way of knowing what top sports stars put in their bodies, then punishing them for using certain substances becomes ridiculously arbitrary.

And we still persecute those stupid enough to use recreational drugs. I in no way condone Mutu's decision to break the law. He was a bloody fool and to a certain extent deserves what punishment he gets, in the same way Rio Ferdinand deserved to have the book thrown at him for missing a drugs test completely. Yet it is hypocritical to hit those who, however stupid, do not cheat, whilst we take no action against those who undoubtedly do.