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Doping always about greed and politics

‘It is a standing insult to sportsmen to have to play under a rule which assumes that players intend to trip, hack and push their opponents, and behave like cads of the most unscrupulous kidney.” So said Charles Burgess Fry, one of England’s all-time sporting greats, arguing against football adopting the law that in 1891 brought into existence the penalty area and the penalty kick.

CB Fry was a gentleman amateur who played football and cricket for England, captained Oxford University in both, and held the long-jump world record. Deliberately fouling an opponent was beyond his comprehension but he knew what was coming.

By “cads”, Fry meant professionals, who grew in number at the time he played. As soon as there was a financial reward to be had from breaking the laws of any sport, he said, the game was up – or at least his version of it. Performance became more important than participation. A few years on from his kidney outburst, Fry wrote: “In football it is widely acknowledged that, if both sides agree to cheat, cheating is fair.”

The same argument is applied by modern professional sportsmen and women: if everybody else is doing it, I am going to do it. Even in sports governance, executives might say the same, so widespread is the corruption.

Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong are the three highest-profile individual doping cheats of the past 30 years but everybody involved in sport knows that many of their rivals on the track and in the saddle were cheating, too, even if many were never caught.

Jones had it all. Her five medals at the Sydney 2000 Olympics and her attractive persona earned her a place on the front cover of Vogue. Eight years later she spent 49 days in solitary confinement while serving a six-month sentence for, among other things, lying to a federal agent about her use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The Russians involved in the latest scandal operated on such a large scale that they can only have been acting in what they thought was the national interest. At least it was not as bad as the worst excesses of the Soviet era.

The low point came in 1968. The Soviet Union had to deal with an uprising in Czechoslovakia, which would lead to a military invasion of Prague in August. The Olympic Games in Mexico City took place in October and the last thing Moscow wanted was for the mighty Soviet team to be beaten by the Czechs in any contest.

The best female gymnast at the time was a Czech, Vera Caslavska. To counter Caslavska and her team-mates, the Soviets took extreme measures. “In any other country it would have been called rape,” one of the Soviet coaches said a quarter of a century later, after one of the gymnasts had told a German television interviewer what happened.

Doctors had discovered that pregnant women could gain an advantage in muscle power, suppleness and lung capacity, because they produced more red blood cells. So all the gymnasts, two of whom were 15 at the time, were forced to become pregnant before the Olympics: if they did not have a husband or boyfriend, they were made to have sex with a male coach. Anyone who refused was thrown off the team.

After 10 weeks of pregnancy every gymnast had an abortion. They won the team gold medal by a fraction of a point, with Czechoslovakia second.

What do CB Fry and pregnant gymnasts have to do with sport in 2015, with the scandal in athletics, the corruption that blights Fifa, fears of more cover-ups in swimming, the new film about Lance Armstrong, or any other facet of cheating in modern sport? They show that cheating has been around for a long time and the two bedrock reasons for doing it are the same as ever.

“One is greed and the other is political aggrandisement,” says Mike Rowbottom, an athletics specialist who has written a book about the subject, Foul Play: The Dark Arts of Cheating in Sport. “It has been the case since the ancient Greek Olympics and it is still the case now. If anybody thinks this is a mountain, and we’ve reached the top and can sort it all out now, think again. Cheating in sport is not linear. It’s cyclical, and this is just another part of the cycle.”

That cycle started more than 2?500 years ago. A boxer, Eupolos of Thessaly, offered bribes to opponents to lose in the Olympics in 388BC. His motive was pure greed: the rewards for winning an Olympic title were huge.

Widespread doping started in the 1950s when cyclists and other athletes took amphetamines, which had been used by soldiers in the World War II. Robust drug-testing did not start until the 1970s, by when two cyclists had died – Denmark’s Knud Enemark Jensen at the 1960 Rome Olympics and the Briton Tommy Simpson on the 1967 Tour de France.

Also in the 1950s, anabolic steroids went on sale in the US, and the Soviet Union overcame its aversion to the “bourgeois, aristocratic” Olympics to take on the rest of the world, with great success. “I had to send a special note to Stalin, guaranteeing victory,” said Nikolai Romanov, the man in charge of the Soviet sport committee.

Even so, the Soviets were outdone in cheating by East Germany, whose infamous state-sponsored doping programme brought in more than 400 medals in six summer Olympiads, and ruined the lives of scores of athletes, most of them women.

If you are going to invest in cheating in Olympic sports, you get a much better return on your doping dollar in women’s events. Testosterone has far more impact

on women than men – and ever more women’s events have been added to the Olympic programme since the 1960s, taking the number of participants from a few hundred to nearly 5 000.

The chief doctor for East Germany’s doping programme reported directly to the Stasi, the country’s secret police. Drugs that had never been tested on humans were among those administered.

For the shot putter Heidi Krieger, the consequences were much worse than a deep voice, a pronounced jaw and pubic hair that grew up to her navel. “I was thrown out of my gender,” he said, for Heidi became Andreas after a sex-change operation in the late 1990s. “I still say today they killed Heidi.”

Where will it all end? It won’t, say Rowbottom and a growing number of academics who believe that attitudes to cheating are still stuck in the Victorian era, and that there is a need for a high-level discourse on the morality and philosophy of 21st-century professional sport.

The public play a big role too: they profess outrage at the latest scandal but still pay to watch, still demand ever better, faster, stronger performances.

“If I had to make a prediction, it would be that football doping will be the next big story – not just now, but going back half a century,” said Rowbottom. “There was already big money in football in the 1960s and 1970s, and there was virtually no policing for anyone who wanted to give players an unfair chemical advantage.

“Some would say the policing is not much better now.”

Rowbottom’s prediction will resonate with Arsène Wenger. The Arsenal manager said only last week that he suspected teams of using performance-enhancing drugs over his 30-year career in football management.

That could be good news for athletics: some respite as another sport goes into the “cheating” spotlight. Until the next one comes along. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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