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Sport without doping is an impossible aim

We want sports stars to be either desperate druggies or blue-eyed cleanies, with no room for anything in between.

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 first appeared in the 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.