The thing about sport is that it’s binary: my lot against your lot, our boys against their boys, leaders and followers, Cavaliers and Roundheads, good guys and bad guys. It follows that sport has an equally constant need for heroes and villains, just like any other form of mythology.
And that’s why stories about drugs in sport are so popular: they create instant villains.
The Winter Olympics begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on 9 February. The villain has already been cast, and it’s a whole country: Russia has been banned. This followed a 17-month investigation into doping at the last Winter Olympics, held in Sochi, Russia, in 2014. The host nation was found to have doped athletes routinely and then manipulated their urine tests.
The International Olympic Committee, caught up in geopolitical wrangling, declined to ban Russia from the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, saying that sanctions were a matter for individual sports (only athletics took action). But after further investigations, a ban became unavoidable. Russian athletes with no history of drug-taking have been invited to compete in Pyeongchang under the Olympic flag. After months of doubt, it now looks as if the figure-skater Evgenia Medvedeva will take part; she might turn out to be the star of the Winter Games.
If you read the sports pages, you’ll find a decent drugs story just about every day. These can involve some radical revaluations. Chris Froome was a hero: a British rider who won the Tour de France four times. Last year, he failed a drugs test. Bradley Wiggins, another cycling hero, was BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2012 following the London Olympics. He’s also been caught up in a drugs story.
Are they, therefore, both villains? People of great evil, whom we are duty-bound to hate? Froome tested positive for an asthma drug. Wiggins was found to have used drugs, quite legally, under a “Therapeutic Use Exemption” (TUE). Was this pushing the rules? Benefiting from a loophole? Brilliantly exploiting a marginal gain?
Neither man can stand comparison with US cyclist Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of seven Tour de France victories after an investigation concluded that his team had run “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen”. (Those who ran the East German sporting programme in the 1980s may contest this.)
It follows that every athlete involved in a drugs story is damned as another Armstrong. The binary morality of sport explains its perennial popularity as a target for investigative journalism: one whisper destroys a reputation and creates a villain. We want sports stars to be either desperate druggies or blue-eyed cleanies, with no room for anything in between.
When is a drug not a drug? When it’s called a dietary supplement? When you’ve got a TUE? Some drugs are legal at certain dosages. Overdoing an asthma drug just once is illegal; so is using human growth hormone over the course of an entire career, as Armstrong did.
The people who run sport must wish dope-testing had never been invented. The testers constantly lag behind the users in an arms race that they can never win. Every time a drug user is caught, it’s seen not as a victory but as a defeat – for the sport, for the Olympics. Heroes become villains with dismaying speed. Entire sports – weightlifting, cycling, track and field – become discredited. There is a growing tendency for the Olympic movement, which defines itself by the loftiest sporting morality, to be seen as the abode of demons. The testing continues because it’s evident that the world wants clean sport. The snag is that the world isn’t at all sure what clean sport entails. As a result, the villains are beginning to outnumber the heroes.
Those who take human growth hormone, those who take the wrong cough medicine, those who make a mess of diary-keeping and miss a drugs test, all look equally depraved in tomorrow’s paper. The world wants black and white: what it’s got is 50 shades of Aspirin.
Simon Barnes is the former chief sports writer for the Times
This article appears in the 31 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration