Sport - Jason Cowley on drugs in sport

Should we care if our athletes have been pumped full of nandrolone? Asks Jason Cowley

So Greg Rusedski was despatched from the first round of the Australian Open in straight sets with scarcely a flexed muscle of defiance. The Canadian-born-pseudo-Briton-with-a-Polish-name has always seemed to me a distinctly opportunistic figure, the kind of guy who would do anything, even change his nationality, to increase his fame and thus his wealth. Scarcely a month passes when he does not change his coach or abuse an umpire for a faulty line call. The world, it seems, is endlessly conspiring against the wretched Rusedski.

But is he also a cheat? More precisely, did he, as accused, take the performance-enhancing drug nandrolone, which is related to the hormone testosterone and accelerates recovery from injury as well as enabling an athlete to train harder and longer? And if he did, should we care?

Whenever an international athlete tests positive for this banned steroid or that "designer" masking agent, he automatically professes his innocence. He invariably blames anyone and anything - his coach, his doctor, his nasal spray - but himself. This is as absurd as it is comic. It leads to a loss of belief among sports fans and to a climate of perpetual suspicion.

Most top sportsmen and women are fanatics; they push themselves beyond tolerable limits and then push themselves some more. If they are truly ambitious, they are addicted to improvement. Most of them already take more vitamins, dietary supplements and other pills than the average Aids patient. They take almost anything, if it is legal, to secure a competitive advantage, to make themselves stronger and fitter, to help them become the best. And many will risk taking illegal substances, too, especially if they think they can improve their performance even by the slimmest of margins.

The truth is, the drugs work. This has been demonstrated by the countries of the former eastern bloc and, more recently, China in their state-funded pursuit of doped excellence. Today, there is scarcely a major sport that is not tainted by drugs scandals, from athletics to baseball and from swimming to cycling.

Michael Sokolove, writing recently in the New York Times magazine, commented on the baffling muscularity of many modern baseball players. Looking at videos of matches from the 1980s, he contrasted the appearance of the players then with those of today and concluded that the new power in baseball was the result of performance-enhancing drugs. He lamented that drugs had changed the very nature of the game, which had become less graceful and far more aggressive - a game of power.

Yet some of the greatest performances of all have been drug-assisted. To witness Ben Johnson break the world 100m record at the 1988 Seoul Olympics was to witness an astounding feat of strength and power. That he was soon afterwards revealed to have taken a cocktail of steroids and was stripped of his gold medal did little to diminish the force of his performance - after all, he had not travelled down the track on a motorbike. Nor was he alone in cheating; several of the athletes who lined up alongside him that day would themselves later fail drugs tests.

There is, too, a libertarian argument in support of the use of illegal drugs in sport, and it can be expressed as a simple question: why shouldn't athletes take whichever substances they choose so long as they hurt nobody but themselves?

But this is to concede the defeat of the sporting ideal as well as to condemn children to certain abuse at the hands of malevolent coaches. We know that in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states in the 1970s and 1980s, many children were fed steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs without the consent of their parents. Most never became champions; they disappeared into anonymity, their lives blighted and their health compromised by their unwitting role in a state-controlled experiment. No parent would want this to happen again, which is why performance-enhancing drugs are destined to remain illegal and why, if he is guilty, Rusedski should be banned.

Jason Cowley is editor of the Observer Sport Monthly. Hunter Davies is away

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2004 issue of the New Statesman, NS Special Report - The killing fields