Good v Evil: The World Athletics Championships, Blood Doping and the Narrative of Sport
James Fenn of the H+K Sports team examines the debate around performance enhancing drugs and how it fits within the narrative of sport
The World Athletics Championships in Beijing have reached their conclusion. While British stars Mo Farah, Jess Ennis and Greg Rutherford starred, the championships were dominated by one rivalry. Usain Bolt, the world record holder and darling of modern athletics, against Justin Gatlin, a man who has twice served drugs bans and who was comfortably the fastest man in the world this year. When Bolt pulled off an unlikely victory in the 100m, the reaction of BBC commentator Steve Cram told its own story - Bolt the great redeemer, saving us all from Gatlin and his evil ways:
“He’s saved his title. He’s saved his reputation. He may have even saved his sport.”
A recent Sunday Times expose alleged that blood test data revealed a third of medals won in endurance events at the Olympics were won by athletes with suspicious tests. In recent years numerous athletes, including Dwain Chambers, Lance Armstrong and Gatlin himself have become pariahs after their use of performance enhancing drugs was revealed. Doping is one of the great challenges facing modern sport.
One of the arguments given to solve this sporting problem is to universally legalise the use of performance enhancing drugs. Doping is such a problem because it’s unfair; some athletes follow the rules while others don’t. If doping was legal, this problem goes away. It’s an interesting idea, perfect for stimulating discussion like this, but it won’t happen. The main reason why speaks to a fundamental truth about why sport has such a hold on society.
Just Win Baby?
Al Davis, late owner of the Oakland Raiders famously said ‘Just Win Baby’. A notable sports brand trades on the line ‘Just Do It’. To reference one of the great sporting clichés ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’. The rhetoric of sport is based on securing victory at all cost. It’s a zero sum game - if you win, I lose. The human brain loves simplicity, and in turn sport is essentially binary. Either you win and you succeed, or you lose and you don’t. We are conditioned to believe that the result is the ultimate goal.
So why then, does the use of performance enhancing drugs offend sports fans in such a profound way? If sport is a slavish quest for a result, designed for our entertainment, why should we care if athletes using performance enhancing drugs? Drugs are used to boost performance in other fields. Musicians who produce their best music on drugs are seen as cult heroes. Medical students often survive only by pulling all-nighters filled with caffeine binges and Saline drips. If performance enhancing drugs mean that we get to see the true peak of human capability, and extend careers so we see it for as long as possible for as long as possible, wouldn’t that be a good thing? If PED’s meant Brian Lara could keep playing cricket until he was 60, or that the 100 meters could be run in 9 seconds flat, wouldn’t we want to see that? I think I would. If we could just change the rules to make drug use legal, wouldn’t that be a positive?
But performance enhancing drugs won’t ever be made legal. Some of the arguments regularly given against legalisation include - safety, the dangerous precedent and the loss of the human element from sport (the countries with the best drugs, not the best athletes, may start winning at the Olympics). But these issues exist in sport today, as it wrestles with new technology, new levels of athleticism and new understanding of health risks. The real reason why it won’t happen, and why athletes who dope are so vilified, is that performance enhancing drugs cross a line for every sports fan. They are profoundly, and essentially, ‘wrong’.
Good v Evil
When sport is great, it has a power to affect us unlike almost anything else. Sport doesn’t just stimulate ordinary emotions, pleasure or pain. It becomes a part of our lives on a daily basis. We change our behaviour to replicate sportspeople, we spend hours analysing the minutiae of sport and we worship anyone who excels. In this way, sport is in more like a religion.
When we think about the most entertaining sporting moments, we think about unpredictability. That not knowing the outcome of any given race or match is what gives it its resonance. In reality, sport has such a hold on us because like a religious story or any great enduring fairy-tale, it fits a narrative that we recognise. We have our heroes, the athletes that we worship. There may not be a princess at the top of a tower to rescue, but sport has its own trophies, the silverware and results that define achievement. Injuries, setbacks and adverse conditions are the dragons our favourite sportspeople and teams must slay on the way to glory.
The result of this narrative is that sport is guided by a clear moral code. We know what is right, and what isn’t. A red card for a last ditch tackle gone wrong, commendable. A red card for an elbow swung a bit too liberally, morally reprehensible. It seems then that ‘winning at all costs’ is the ultimate sporting fallacy. Winning is allowed, like every part of the game, only within our moral code.
When athletes dope, they consciously reject the established patterns of sport, and they reject the moral code. They go outside of the lines, transplanting the rules of the sport and society for their own. It is this rejection of order that makes doping a cardinal sin of sport. Any athlete found guilty, finds themselves transplanted into a new role in the sporting architecture, that of the pantomime villain. Justin Gatlin and his agent have been quick to complain that the BBC commentary went over the top in the way Gatlin was presented. But when Gatlin billed Bolt’s victory as good over evil, he was simply expressing the way sport always has, and always will, be seen. In the narrative sport, Gatlin is the ultimate personification of the villain.
What it means for performance enhancing drugs
Many still argue for legalisation of PED’s, but for now they will continue to be one of sport’s great problems. Driven by the hero status and vast riches that victory brings, some athletes will continue to do or take anything they can for glory. When these cheats are caught, they offend the moral sensibilities of sport fans to such an extent that are vilified.
This narrative of heroes and villains is at the heart of how we consume sport. Unless this changes, the use of performance enhancing drugs will continue to dominate the agenda the way it did in Beijing.