Chemistry is a poor substitute for character

Lincoln Allison’s provocative article ‘Are drugs really that bad?” (August 13) forces us to interrogate existing paradigms regarding drugs and sport against the backdrop of a spate of positive tests.

Doping is banned because it gives an athlete an unfair advantage; it has significant health consequences; and it violates the spirit of sport. One may argue that being laissez-faire about drugs does not constitute an unfair advantage because it grants equal access to all — that is, of course, if one can afford it.

In weighing up this issue, however, the potential positive factors always need to be balanced against the negative ones. While Allison seeks to trivialise the health effects of doping by stating that the ‘risk [from doping] is slight and that sometimes there is an overall benefit to health”, the facts speak differently.

The evidence in the scientific literature irrefutably demonstrates the devastating effects of doping on East German female athletes — including masculinisation, infertility and, in some cases, cancer. Also irrefutable are the direct links between the drug erythropoietin and the deaths of cyclists. Even if the effects were debatable, as Allison would have us believe, we as a society always employ the precautionary principle.

‘Timeliness,” as one author put it, ‘is the key attribute of good public policy. A little information at the time is infinitely more useful than incontrovertible evidence presented once it is too late.” We therefore prohibit drugs based on current knowledge and evidence to protect society, particularly those most vulnerable to its negative effects — such as women and children.

This may reflect paternalistic, Victorian values but the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate, especially because athletes are willing to ‘trade a longer life for a chance at glory”.

In the United States, surveys suggest that 2,5% of 13- to 14-year olds have used anabolic steroids. The figure in Australia is much higher. This is serious considering that sports drugs are often the gateway to other drug use.

If this is the case, I would certainly be circumspect in allowing my children to participate in any serious sporting endeavour. Once societal consensus demands that drugs be banned in the achievement of its higher goals and in the protection of its most vulnerable, then we are all expected to commit to the upholding of this to protect the integrity of society.

Allison and those who hold similar views premise their opposition to anti-doping on the perception that doping is widespread, doping cheats are unlikely to be caught and that it is the innocent who are inconvenienced.

This is an absurd argument and, taken to its equally absurd limits, is akin to saying that because criminal behaviour in South Africa is widespread, the likelihood of criminals being apprehended is remote, and that the law intended for criminals inconveniences the innocent, therefore crime should be permitted. We should rather be arguing how we can redouble our efforts to prevent doping and prosecute the guilty.

He also premises his opposition on the fact that, since sport is about performance and winning, anything that enhances performance and spectator satisfaction should be permitted. Should we then permit free drug use in society if there are claims, such as in the case of ‘speed”, that it improves performance?

There are many areas where the anti-doping institutions can be challenged: on the scientific rationale of the Prohibited List; what defines enhanced performance; and, for substances enhancing performance, where is the line dividing permitted (such as creatine) from the prohibited (anabolic steroids)? We need to engage continually each other to achieve a rational consensus on such issues. But that is to continue to operate within the existing paradigm.

Finally, to address some glaring errors in Allison’s piece: nandrolone does not stimulate the body to produce its own steroids — nandrolone itself is an exogenous steroid. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication is not on the prohibited list.

Shane Warne was banned for using a diuretic, not because it is performance enhancing but because it masks the use of prohibited substances such as anabolic steroids, which possibly may have accelerated Warne’s recovery from injury.

Being a sportsman and an ardent spectator of sports, I, too, want to enjoy all that sport embodies. But I want to be assured that when the winner takes the podium, it represents not the triumph of chemistry but of character.

Dr Shuaib Manjra is chairperson of the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport

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