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19 November 2015

The sport of performance enhancing, Margaret Thatcher’s prayers and Emperor Jez

The will to win is enough on its own to persuade some athletes to risk their health and sometimes their lives.

By Peter Wilby

The UK Sport website boasts of how it “strategically invest[s]” National Lottery and Treasury money “to maximise the performance of UK athletes”. The £543m programme pays for, among other things, “sports science and medicine”, including special diets. So when the World Anti-Doping Agency reports that the Russian state, in effect, sponsors the use of performance-enhancing drugs by its athletes, I shrug my shoulders. The report accuses the Russians of a “win-at-all-costs mentality” and laments that athletes are likely to be left “without access to top-calibre coaches” if they refuse to take the necessary substances. In almost any major sport, participants will be excluded from the top levels if they don’t accept the coaches’ prescribed diet.

Doping is as old as sport. It is said that in ancient Rome competitors in chariot races drank herbal infusions. Victorian athletes dosed themselves on laudanum (which is 10 per cent opium) and in the early-modern Olympics, marathon runners were openly injected with strychnine. We like to think of sport as pure and natural but, at the highest levels, it inevitably involves artificial aids to performance, even if they amount to nothing more than restricting young men or women to intense training and fitness schedules and a completely atypical lifestyle.

The will to win is enough on its own to persuade some athletes to risk their health and sometimes their lives, as, for example, boxers, rugby players, Formula 1 drivers and even cricketers do. Growing financial rewards encourage more risk-taking.

I suppose the line must be drawn somewhere and I do not defend the evident corruption in Russian sport. But sports commentators should dismount from their moral high horses. The Russians are called “cheats” but no sport has yet been invented where competitors do not cheat and hope to get away with it. At least, unlike some cricketers, the Russians had only winning on their minds.

On Isis, do nothing

If the Russian flight that went down killing all 224 on board after leaving Sharm el-Sheikh was indeed bombed, a direct western attack on IS is surely only a matter of time. The alarmingly gung-ho James Rubin, the former Bill Clinton aide-turned-Sunday Times columnist, envisages terrorists “being let loose on the streets of London, Berlin, New York, Paris and Los Angeles”. He advises “fighting the Isis fire before it goes global” but warns that we shall need “a lot more than modest air strikes and a small contingent of special forces”. If we are “at war” again, he writes, “this time let us do what is necessary to win”.

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My memory is that we did “what is necessary to win” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The results we know. Should we perhaps now try something different? Such as cutting air strikes to zero, withdrawing special forces and accepting that, beyond provision of humanitarian aid, western intervention does no good whatsoever?

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Flash cash

The police commissioner for Bedfordshire proposes permanently switching on all speed cameras on the section of the M1 within the county with the aim of raising £1m a year for the cash-strapped force. Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary, says this would be illegal. If so, the law is an ass. McLoughlin argues that Bedfordshire Police would be “punishing drivers”. What is wrong with that? Drivers would be punished for breaking the law. They can escape punishment by observing the speed limit. Perhaps, as a side effect, a few lives would be saved and serious injuries averted.


Thatcher’s turbulent priests

While spending a weekend in Oxford, my wife and I attended the Remembrance Sunday service at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. In his sermon, the vicar, Canon Brian Mountford, told an extraordinary story, which, if true, casts significant fresh light on the controversy over the service to mark the successful conclusion of the Falklands War held in July 1982 at St Paul’s Cathedral. Some leading clergy, particularly Alan Webster, then dean of St Paul’s, wanted a service that was less triumphalist and more reconciliatory than Margaret Thatcher planned. A compromise was finally reached, whereby the service included notes of penitence and concern for Argentinian as well as British casualties but not, as Webster wished and Thatcher vehemently opposed, prayers in Spanish.

According to Mountford, Thatcher agreed to this compromise only after the then Roman Catholic archbishop of Westminster, Basil Hume, threatened to hold, in Westminster Cathedral on the same day at the exact same time, a rival service on the lines favoured by him and other churchmen. Mountford said he heard this story from Webster who is now dead, as is Hume.

There is no mention of it in either Charles Moore’s Thatcher biography or the late Anthony Howard’s biography of Hume. Moore tells me he has never heard of it and considers it unlikely because Hume was not confrontational and wouldn’t have wanted to act unecumenically. Are any New Statesman readers able to corroborate it?


The glory that wasn’t Corbyn

Still in Oxford, browsing the Ashmolean, I learned about the “lost” Roman emperor Domitianus II. He was apparently acclaimed emperor around 271AD but never acquired significant support where it mattered and lasted only a few weeks. Historians didn’t know he existed until a coin, now displayed in the Ashmolean, was discovered in a hoard in Oxfordshire in 2003.

I fear that, with Labour MPs forming what is being called “a shadow shadow cabinet” and even members of the real shadow cabinet making policy without reference to the leadership, Jeremy Corbyn will be the Domitianus of our age. To ensure his place in history, I advise him to get one of those “Jez We Can” badges buried in an airtight box. Another job for Seumas Milne.

This article appears in the 11 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain