26 February, 2006

The drugs don't work

On the penultimate day of the Winter Olympics, Britain's Alain Baxter skied to a creditable 16th place in the Men's slalom. That's creditable by British standards, I hasten to add. Alain's brother, Noel, was 20th. Arguably, the Baxters were the top family in the event.

However, what is noteworthy about Alain's performance was the very fact that he was allowed to compete. You see, in the Salt Lake Olympics the Scot placed an unexpected third but was stripped of the medal after testing positive for a banned substance. Baxter had bought an over-the-counter nasal spray which contained a drug on the IOC proscribed list.

Baxter stands in contrast to two British track and field stars Carl Myerscough and Dwain Chambers. Both Chambers and Myerscough served suspensions for drug violations. In both cases, the bans were handed down by the IAAF, the sport's governing body. The difference to Baxter is that the British Olympic Association added lifetime Olympic ban to both athletes.

It strikes me as grossly unfair. Chambers and Myerscough have served lengthy suspensions, depriving them of income. In Chambers case, it looks like he may have to hand back medals and winnings from several years ago. He admitted his offences and went public on how long he'd been abusing drugs. However, he and Myerscough will never get their Olympic bans rescinded.

You does the crime and serves the time. But, why should an athlete serve an international sanction then face a domestic sanction that an athlete from, say, France wouldn't have to suffer in the same circumstances?

I'm stuck in two minds here. I strongly believe that athletes owe it to themselves to know the penalty if they use proscribed drugs. There should be zero tolerance.

It's obvious that many athletes are either tempted to "cheat"; or coaches, trainers or whoever persuade them to take "this supplement" to aid their "nutritional needs" or help their recovery process. Nevertheless, the responsibility falls firmly on the athelete to keep clean.

Then again, there's part of me that says "let them do drugs". Sports men and women get every assistance in their training and preparation. Their diet, exercise and competition programmes are carefully planned and monitored. Why not add a bit of juice?

I guess what persuades me that the drug route is not quite the best option lies in the side effects of such substances - short and long term. One might think it's a good idea to get that little extra edge now. But, how many "cheats" know the risk of steroids, EPO or even the humble "nasal spray". (If they want to knowingly cheat, they sure as hell ought to find out the long term side effects.)

In the "good old days" of cycling, amphetamines and cognac were the kicker of choice. (Cyclists also thought they raced better dry - i.e. with as little water as possible even on those 40 deg Tour de France days in mid-July.) The death of Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux in 1967 changed much. Simpson almost certainly abused "speed" as much as, if not more than, other cyclists.

As for EPO, there is - I believe - evidence that it leads to an enlarged heart and complications in later life. 'Roids won't do much for life expectancy either.

I wonder if tequila is on the IOC list?


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