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16 February 2017

In combat sports, doping is a matter of life and death

Cheating is a universal human pastime, and is common across all sports. But in some, it could have fatal consequences.

By Daniel harris

If there’s one thing we know about our species, it’s that we will cheat at anything: ever since Adam ate from the tree of knowledge and feigned ignorance to an omniscient God, every field of human endeavour is punctuated by our dazzling capacity for mendacity. In art there is forgery, in marriage there is adultery, in computers there is hacking, in finance there is insider dealing, and in politics, well how long have you got?

So of course we cheat at sport; of course we have always cheated at sport. Consider the first Tour de France, for example, during which nine riders were disqualified – some of them for taking cars and trains. Of the 27 finishers, 15 more were pulled including the top four places and every stage winner. That was in 1904, and very little has changed.

Roughly, we can separate rule-breaking into two categories, the first of which doesn’t matter and the second of which really matters. There is cheating at the game – diving, fouling, ball-tampering and so on – and there is cheating the game – matchfixing, spot-fixing, and, most prevalent, doping.

Just last Friday, Jenny Meadows, the Great Britain 800m runner, had her bronze medal from the 2010 European Championships upgraded to silver, after Mariya Savinova-Farnosova’s win was struck from the record; Meadows believes that the same woman deprived her of “at least three” other medals. Also last Friday, the World Anti-Doping Agency castigated the “alarming” and “deeply disappointing” testing regimen in Spanish football, before, on Sunday, we learned that at least 39 per cent of English Football League players were not tested at all during the 2015-16 season.

The brunt of the stigma is borne by athletics, cycling and the like. Partly, this is because they are more about physiology than technique – China was able to turn decent club-level swimmers into Olympic champions – and partly this is because individual sports present fewer obstacles to success. But it’s notable what team and skill sports don’t look for.

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“You can’t dope talent,” bleat those certain that skill games are clean, and they are right. But if someone with talent dopes, they are an entirely different proposition to before. As the cyclist David Millar said of two popular drugs, EPO and cortisone, “It’s like having the best day you’ve ever had as an athlete – every day.” Moreover, football, tennis and the rest still demand an incredible levels of speed, power, endurance and recovery. If you can train harder, you can go longer, and if you can go longer, you can play better when others flag.

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And yet, though sportsmen are now asked to play more games, at higher intensity, for more money, for greater glory, than ever before, we are still asked to believe that because not one single player tested positive at the last football World Cup, not one single player could have tested positive at the last football World Cup. “I don’t think there is any form of organised doping in soccer,” said Michel Platini in 2012; “If a club knows in advance we’re coming, and the club suspects one of their players, they keep him off training and his name doesn’t appear on the list I am given,” said one of UK Sport’s Independent Sampling Officers in 2003.

It is not as though there are no historical precedents. There have been suggestions that West Germany’s World Cup winners of 1954 and Argentina’s World Cup winners of 1978 used amphetamines, and that domestic Italian teams have been doping for 50 years. Various players, including some in Helenio Herrera’s legendary La Grande Inter team of the 60s, suffered health problems and early deaths, similarly those who played for Fiorentina in the 70s, while a club doctor at Juventus was convicted of supplying players with EPO in 2004 – coincidentally a period in the team enjoyed major success.

Then, in first decade of this century, the Calciopoli scandal was uncovered, and it does not require a huge leap of faith to believe that if matches were being rigged and referees bribed, the comparatively benign step of dispensing injections might just have been contemplated. Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger noted in 2004 that his medics had observed unusually high red blood cell counts in players signed from overseas, a clear sign that EPO had been used. Naturally, nothing was done.

Things seemed to have reached a head in 2006, when Dr Eufemiano Fuentes was arrested; found in his possession were steroids, and blood bags taken from sports stars he had helped dope. Among them, he said, were tennis players, boxers and footballers – whom he offered to identify – also commenting that if he did, Spain’s World Cup win of 2010 might not be seen as such a success. Naturally, a court ordered destruction of the samples.

Perhaps Fuentes – and others who supported his allegations – were lying, and perhaps there was no option under the law but to dispose of the evidence. Or, perhaps, Fuentes was right in saying that “there are certain sports that people can’t go up against because they have a very powerful legal machinery with which to defend themselves”.

In the UK, our laws of defamation mean that it is hard to even engage in an honest conversation about things which look suspicious – however glaring the coalescence of remarkable improvement in performance and prematurely deteriorating bodies. This leaves us in a depressing paradox: we love sport because it forces us to believe the unbelievable, but we’re can never be sure if something we thought was unbelievable actually is unbelievable. There is, though, a way around this: legislation. If stringent testing were enshrined in law and doping waslegally deemed fraud – after all, clean athletes beaten to titles and funding by dirty athletes incur financial, emotional, existential and psychological penalties, as do sponsors and spectators – there would be far less incentive to cheat. Two years out of sport? Try a fine and jail time instead.

Combat sports, though, need something stronger. To justify our pleasure in them, we regularly remind ourselves that we’re watching athletes not arsekickers, playing physical chess not kicking heads.  Combat sports are not like other sports because competitors are doing everything in their power to inflict as much physical damage upon their opponent as possible. They must be clean, and be seen to be clean.

Just this weekend, Germaine de Randamie beat Holly Holm to win the UFC’s featherweight championship, and already there talk is of her defending the belt against Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino. Except Justino is currently suspended after an out-of-competition test showed her to have taken Spironolactone, a masking agent and diuretic. (She is pursuing a retroactive therapeutic use exemption.) In 2012, she tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol, earning herself a $2,500 fine and a year’s suspension. That was, and is, an absolute nonsense. In the first instance, it is possible that a person’s body will forever be changed after a cycle of doping.

But it’s more than that. In all contact sports, there exists a duty of care between competitors not to damage their opponents. To be guilty of an offence, a defendant must show reckless disregard for their opponent’s safety and act contrary to the playing culture of the sport. Doping in combat sports demonstrates this reckless disregard; it’s no different to loading gloves. However, for it to be actionable, there has to be direct causation to injury – something difficult to prove in a court, all the more so given how long brain injuries can take to emerge. 

But, instead, fighters dope, and if they fail a test they are banned before returning as though nothing happened. We can only hope that we never see one person beating another person to death before being outed as a doper. Our species will cheat at anything, even when the stakes are the highest they can be.