Strong arming a subject

The Lance Armstrong "affair" continues to swirl around, resurfacing in between other news stories as people hit another juicy section of the 202 page USADA report. Never being short of an opinion, I felt the need to share mine.

I do need to be careful here, so let me say, for the record that, as a result of my borderline coffee addiction I may have come dangerously close to the IOC limits for caffeine, I have never knowingly taken any banned substance, nor have I condoned it in people I have trained or trained with. In fact, one of my many limitations in sport and life has been not being nasty enough and being too willing to play within the rules. And when all the hand-wringing, moralising and soap-box grandstanding is done, whatever else we may think, anabolics, peptide hormones, growth factors, Beta-2 agonists, diuretics, blood doping inter alia are categories of banned substances or methods. And, for example, if you compete in a regulated sport and enjoy a Camberwell carrot, even if you live in the Netherlands, you are breaking the rules.

It is interesting to see who comes out to comment on this story. Careful soundbites, filled with moral indignation. If we believe everything we hear we must surely reach the conclusion that all of society's ills are rooted in the insidious evil that is sports drugs taking. The sight of politicians leaping on this is frankly morally abhorrent. The level of institutional rule bending across the UK parliament has been breath-taking, not just in the outright fraud and deception but in the rationalising of it by politicians across all parties. In light of which, we might be entitled to expect a somewhat more balanced response.

It is also easy to be wise after the event and say "well, of course, it was so obvious" I will try not to fall into that one. Without being too facetious though, let's have a look at what we "know":-

1) the highest level of any activity is a selfish pursuit. By necessity, extraneous pursuits, issues, "baggage" falls by the wayside. Relationships and other people too, especially if their sphere of reference does not coincide with ours.

2) to pursue, achieve and maintain the level of focus required takes a drive that most of us will experience but briefly in our lives. The day-in, day-out dedication is what separates out the elite from the good. How many of us can occupy the territory where millimetres of difference in position is the gap between success and failure? Where tiny fractions of a second are our margin?

3) Well formed teams will rigorously and vigorously defend their values and norms against the outside world. For a team to perform at its best, every member must believe and live the message, the mission. We can, and should, have a variety of personalities and strengths in the unit but without conformity in key areas, we blunt the point. It takes time, effort and dedication to achieve the necessary level of understanding within a team. Which is why we see so few teams living up to the aggregated potential of the members.

Quite often, when an outsider gets to witness this growing together in action it is seen as outlandish, freakish and dysfunctional. Live with us and then judge us.

4) Whatever we might tell ourselves, elite sport has nothing to do with health and well-being. NOTHING. Operating at the outer reaches of the current limits of human performance carries an inherent risk and its own consequences. The mental fixation and channeling would register as sick in most other contexts. As fans and spectators we see the shiny aspect, not the coal-face nor the casualties who fall by the wayside.

5) The "legitimate" nutro-ceuticals industry is worth billions of dollars globally. Athletes at all levels, from recreational to elite, are all supplementing furiously. At the top level, activity is predicated on a regimen of tonic drinks, shakes, pills, injections (vitamins and others). We are years distant from "natural" competition.

6) Oxygen tents and altitude training camps are methods for professional sportsmen to encourage their bodies to adapt and transport more oxygen around the body through an increase in red blood cells. These barely register on the public consciousness. The cash-starved amongst us might try strapping on a gas mask or mask and snorkel while training in the belief that we are working on the same end.

While tinged with sadness that another idol has been found to be flawed, I am not a good enough actor to appear to be colossally surprised. The detail and the length of the report are a surprise. The main thrust, sadly not. It is another nail in the coffin of the notion of clean athletes but can I say, hand on heart, that it built that coffin or has destroyed sport? No, and frankly anybody that does is posturing.

One of the almost guaranteed comments that emerges fast on the coat-tails of any sports-related drug story is "they're all doing it, of course (s)he was" or more usefully for this piece "why don't they just make it all legal since they're all doing something". The theory runs that without having to worry about testing, all of the athletes can crack on and we create a level playing field. Since quite a few of the IOC/WADA list are also controlled substances, it would not be a complete free for all but it is still an intriguing concept.

One such suggestion recently met with the rebuttal that this would hand victory not to the best tacticians, nor the hardest workers with the best team but to "the most physiologically adapted to the drugs available to them [...] the person whose physiology just happened to adapt to whatever biotechnology had to offer at that period in time". The same commentary refers also to those with greater resource having access to better doctors and to those who are prepared to risk more with their bodies than other people.

There are other sports and competitive arenas which are technology heavy and rigorously codified and yet we still see the advantages posed by having access to better engineers or doctors. In fact, without wishing to detract from enormous amount of good that he does, nor from the hard work that he puts in, this is precisely what we have seen from Oscar Pistorius' camp in recent years. Or for a perhaps less controversial comparator, have a look at the UK Athletics lottery funding model, specifically and explicitly targeting those with medal potential. It is an open acknowledgement that making the transfer from potential to realised talent takes funding. (As an aside, having explicit performance criteria in place to judge a return on investment is to be applauded to some degree).

As for better biological adaptation, I'm sorry, I don't buy it. That's at the heart of coaching and athletic performance. It isn't the training per se, it is the adaptation to the training that we seek. Indeed, if you give two athletes the same programme guidance you would get two different sets of results, as dependent as much on the physiology, anthropometry, genetics and exercise history as it is on your ingenuity as a coach.

The best resourced athletes gain access to centres for excellence packed to the gunwales with PhDs and technology to help them monitor, adjust and adapt the programme according to the response. The less well resourced get access to a coach or two. The less well again get an amateur coach with limited time or perhaps not even that, making do with their training journal and Dr Google.

What about training and appropriate rest and recovery? Access to training facilities costs money. Access to coaches usually comes with an economic transaction to make up or the coach's time/opportunity cost. If not that then the coach's education and continuing professional development will cost somebody. Equipment? You guessed it.

And if to pay for all that you need a job, how do you find the time to fit it all in? A little sponsorship cuts the impact on your household finances, full funding enables you to focus on your sport as a full-time occupation without distraction. Is it possible to do it without funding, indubitably. Is removing additional pressure a good thing for performance goals? In this context...usually.

You get the picture?

Sport, and I'd say life, has not been just about the hardest worker for a long...well, ever I suspect! I wish it wasn't so! True, hard work is a large contributing factor, little good occurs without it. The hard worker will, more often than not, beat the genetically gifted or talented person if they don't work. Very few of the banned substances create performance, they enhance it. You might be an archer who slips in Beta-blockers under the radar (category P2!). It may give you a helping hand to improve your performance but without the time at the butts you are unlikely to suddenly find yourself in the medals.

But for all my ambiguity on the topic, the common conclusion that everybody is doing it saddens me. It saddens me for two reasons. Firstly the self-justification that follows, making the doping somehow legitimate. The self-delusion lacks even the vague integrity of the honest cheat. Secondly it is the continued reinforcement of the belief that it is an inherent part if success in the sport. And you know what, it might well be at the highest level, but there will be many people who will find themselves on this trail without ever exploring the reaches of their own genetic potential.

Is cycling rotten? It has its fair share of driven, single-minded individuals, supported by equally driven individuals with no shortage of resources and millions of dollars at stake. Rather than a foul corruption in the soul of society it appears to be a microcosm of it.

We have well-intentioned people with a singular focus, bending the rules to achieve. We have morally ambiguous individuals incentivised by money, receiving rewards that outstrip the risks inherent in pursuing them. No, this was not an extract from the report on the banking industry/parliament/commerce.

It has been a long time since we could say that our sporting heroes have been paragons of virtue. How often do the words impulse control; greed; self-destructive tendencies; more money than sense etc etc find themselves in close association with the names of our "heroes". They are human after all and as such are flawed. We mistake sporting prowess or endeavour for virtue and while they may make joint appearances, it does not necessarily follow that in the presence of one, the other will be found.

The long and the short of it is that the Armstrong saga tells us as much, or as little as our perspective allows. The dedication to the endeavour would be laudable but for its illegality. Either way, the story gives us a platform from which to air our views, with us much chance of swaying the opposition as we would have in a political or religious debate.

But still we go on and on and...


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