Not so strong: Lance Armstrong apologises for taking performance-enhancing drugs in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, January 2013. Photo: Getty
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After the beep: when mental strength hits a wall, doping helps you get over it

The relentless professional era has taken elements of the beep test and incorporated these into real sports, even disciplines we usually think of as “skill” sports.

When the Tour de France rolled into London, I was watching BBC4’s film Stop at Nothing, about Lance Armstrong. It was unnerving to hear the original television commentary on the rider’s victories. Moral abstract nouns were commonplace: celebrations of Armstrong’s determination, his strength of character, desire, guts and hunger. All present. None relevant. The critical factor was his pioneering use of drugs.

This fallacy – confusing physical strengths (whether legitimate or illegal) with moral attributes – is commonplace in sport. And watching the Armstrong film underlined the importance of trying to distinguish between the two, even when it leads to uncomfortable conclusions.

I should know better. During my cricketing days, a few times every season I had to complete a fitness exercise called the “beep test”. This consists of a recorded series of beeps, with the interval between each pair gradually reducing. You have to run 20 metres before the next beep, then turn and run another 20 metres – and so on. The test begins at a slow jog and ends at a sprint. When you miss a beep, you have to drop out. The test is described as “maximal and progressive”. Translation: it gets steadily worse, until the point where you break.

I’ve done dozens of beep tests and heard many team-mates say just before the start, “It’s really all about having a strong mind.” But it isn’t; indeed, it cannot be. A strong mind takes you to your physical limit – and no further. The beep test is explicitly designed to find your physical breaking point, whatever that may be.

I eventually learned, in fact, that the exercise revealed the primacy of straightforward lung capacity. The test measures physical fitness exclusively. The pain you feel at the moment of dropping out is always the same: what differs is how far your body has taken you before that happens.

The relentless professional era has taken elements of the beep test and incorporated these into real sports, even disciplines we usually think of as “skill” sports. For instance, a highly committed football team will now “press” – maintain a collective defensive hounding of opposition players – as much as it can. (It is worth noting that some former players from the 1960s and 1970s teams that pioneered pressing have admitted that they were fuelled by performance-enhancing drugs.)

All teams, if they are rational, stop pressing at the point where the tactic makes them so exhausted that they become more vulnerable to conceding a goal. So, effective pressing, much in evidence at the World Cup in Brazil, is a question of physical capacity as well as commitment. If you aren’t fit enough, it becomes impossible.

That is good example of how sport evolves. Elite sport is now so demanding that players often operate near or at their physical capacity. Put differently, we wildly exaggerate the extent to which top players can just try harder. Yet this truth has not yet trickled down into the language of sports analysis. When we notice a vast disparity in energy between two apparently well-matched teams, it is very tempting to fall back on a moral explanation. One team “wants it more”, has more “urgency” or a greater depth of “passion and commitment”. Moral superiority becomes the dominant causal narrative.

But in sports where fitness has central importance (increasingly, nearly every sport) it is more common that one side is physically superior. There has never been any evidence to support the cliché that “at the highest level” the difference is “usually in the mind”. Indeed, I suspect the opposite: at the highest level, given the mental strength of champion athletes, the difference is more likely to be in the body. Both teams are trying equally hard, but one is inevitably stronger than the other.

Here my logic takes an uncomfortable turn. All this explains why performance-enhancing drugs have become so widespread in professional sport. As we approach the outer wall of human physical capacity, improving skill becomes incredibly difficult. So, too, does improving concentration and fitness through conventional hard work.

In that context, sadly, the easiest way to get better is to cheat by taking drugs. That has long been the case in sports – such as cycling and athletics – which are obviously based on physical supremacy. Other sports are now catching up, if that is the right term. It is becoming harder than ever to find “the edge” legally.

There is a paradox here: in an era of widespread drug use, teams and individuals derided for their moral failure may, in fact, be morally superior – by refusing to cheat, they give the appearance of lacking urgency, commitment and hunger. After all, a sporting contest is always relative. Even the most sluggish national football team would look pretty snappy playing against a bunch of random friends on the beach. So there is a double injustice: by taking performance-enhancing drugs, sportsmen not only win unfairly, but also create the illusion that their rivals are not trying.

Why write this now? The World Cup has been widely described as a celebration of Latin American joie de vivre. That is an attractive idea. And it may be true. Yet it is also possible that some teams, which seemed to be playing with the manic abandon of total desire, were in fact simply benefiting from physical advantages.

More than once during this World Cup I have sensed a team playing with almost superhuman levels of energy. That instinct does not prove anything, but it unavoidably raises the alarm. I hope I’m wrong.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Want to send a positive Brexit message to Europe? Back Arsene Wenger for England manager

Boris Johnson could make a gesture of goodwill. 

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Sam Allardyce, who coveted the England job for so many years, before losing it after playing just a single match. Yet Allardyce has only himself to blame and the Football Association were right to move quickly to end his tenure.

There are many candidates for the job. The experience of Alan Pardew and the potential of Eddie Howe make them strong contenders. The FA's reported interest in Ralf Rangner sent most of us scurrying to Google to find out who the little known Leipzig manager is. But the standout contender is Arsenal's French boss Arsene Wenger, 

Would England fans accept a foreign manager? The experience of Sven Goran-Eriksson suggests so, especially when the results are good. Nobody complained about having a Swede in charge the night that England won 5-1 in Munich, though Sven's sides never won the glittering prizes, the Swede proving perhaps too rigidly English in his commitment to the 4-4-2 formation.

Fabio Capello's brief stint was less successful. He never seemed happy in the English game, preferring to give interviews in Italian. That perhaps contributed to his abrupt departure, falling out with his FA bosses after he seemed unable to understand why allegations of racial abuse by the England captain had to be taken seriously by the governing body.

Arsene Wenger could not be more different. Almost unknown when he arrived to "Arsene Who?" headlines two decades ago, he became as much part of North London folklore as all-time great Arsenal and Spurs bosses, Herbert Chapman or Bill Nicholson, his own Invicibles once dominating the premier league without losing a game all season. There has been more frustration since the move from Highbury to the Emirates, but Wenger's track record means he ranks among the greatest managers of the last hundred years - and he could surely do a job for England.

Arsene is a European Anglophile. While the media debate whether or not the FA Cup has lost its place in our hearts, Wenger has no doubt that its magic still matters, which may be why his Arsenal sides have kept on winning it so often. Wenger manages a multinational team but England's football traditions have certainly got under his skin. The Arsenal boss has changed his mind about emulating the continental innovation of a winter break. "I would cry if you changed that", he has said, citing his love of Boxing Day football as part of the popular tradition of English football.

Obviously, the FA must make this decision on football grounds. It is an important one to get right. Fifty years of hurt still haven't stopped us dreaming, but losing to Iceland this summer while watching Wales march to the semi-finals certainly tested any lingering optimism. Wenger was as gutted as anybody. "This is my second country. I was absolutely on my knees when we lost to Iceland. I couldn't believe it" he said.

The man to turn things around must clearly be chosen on merit. But I wonder if our new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson - albeit more of a rugger man himself - might be tempted to quietly  suggest in the corridors of footballing power that the appointment could play an unlikely role in helping to get the mood music in place which would help to secure the best Brexit deal for Britain, and for Europe too.

Johnson does have one serious bit of unfinished business from the referendum campaign: to persuade his new boss Theresa May that the commitments made to European nationals in Britain must be honoured in full.  The government should speed up its response and put that guarantee in place. 

Nor should that commitment to 3m of our neighbours and friends be made grudgingly.

So Boris should also come out and back Arsene for the England job, as a very good symbolic way to show that we will continue to celebrate the Europeans here who contribute so much to our society.

British negotiators will be watching the twists and turns of the battle for the Elysee Palace, to see whether Alain Juppe, Nicolas Sarkozy end up as President. It is a reminder that other countries face domestic pressures over the negotiations to come too. So the political negotiations will be tough - but we should make sure our social and cultural relations with Europe remain warm.

More than half of Britons voted to leave the political structures of the European Union in June. Most voters on both sides of the referendum had little love of the Brussels institutions, or indeed any understanding of what they do.

But how can we ensure that our European neighbours and friends understand and hear that this was no rejection of them - and that so many of the ways that we engage with our fellow Europeans rom family ties to foreign holidays, the European contributions to making our society that bit better - the baguettes and cappuccinos, cultural links and sporting heroes remain as much loved as ever.

We will see that this weekend when nobody in the golf clubs will be asking who voted Remain and who voted Leave as we cheer on our European team - seven Brits playing in the twelve-strong side, alongside their Spanish, Belgian, German, Irish and Swedish team-mates.

And now another important opportunity to get that message across suddenly presents itself.

Wenger for England. What better post-Brexit commitment to a new Entente Cordiale could we possibly make?

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.