IT’S difficult right now to say what poses the greatest threat to the integrity and reputation of sport, and its central place in the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
Is it the manipulation of the game by corrupt players and officials in thrall to powerful betting syndicates, or is it the endemic use of drugs — performance-enhancing and recreational — afflicting and tarnishing so many great events and participants, making cynics of the rest of us?
While the Pakistan cricket team continues on its merry way in England, and setting aside the tumultuous event of Cork’s All-Ireland victory, two of the most eye-catching headlines this week emerged from the dark side.
The first arose from discussions at the World Anti-Doping Agency. WADA is backed by most national governments and has over-arching and draconian powers to eradicate drug-taking from sport. The question which was vexing it was whether it could draft legislation to proscribe as yet uninvented synthetic compounds.
The debate echoes that which has taken place about outlawing substances created in the laboratory that can produce the so-called “legal highs” — legal in the sense that they have previously avoided definition in the various statutes and acts which confer criminality upon their production, distribution and use.
WADA, who carry out their business under the mission statement “play true”, already produce a dizzyingly-long prohibited list (you can download it at www.wada-ama.org) but to craft a covenant which can second guess the ingenuity of scientists, chemists and physicists will surely be a task that will tax even the finest legal brains for some time to come.
The visible impact of drug misuse among sportsmen was most graphically illustrated by the Rabelaisian excess in the story of the former world welterweight and light welterweight champion Ricky Hatton, the jack-the-lad boxer who fell to earth.
Hatton, the Pride of Hyde, the Rochdale Rocky, established an image as the working class slugger who never forgot his roots, entering the ring in Las Vegas to the Blue Moon theme song of his favourite football club, Man City.
Wayne Rooney and friends would be ringside for his title bouts at the MGM Grand Arena where they would be joined by the likes of Ashley Cole. All lads together, singing “walking in a Hatton wonderland” and delivering that clarion call from the terraces “who are ya?”
In 13 years, Hatton went from fighting in leisure centres in Widnes to topping the bill in Nevada with an endearing Lancashire wit which marked him down both as a self-proclaimed man of the people with “no side to him” as they say across the Irish Sea, and as a novelty act in the US. “If there was such a thing as reincarnation” he once said of Floyd Mayweather, “then Floyd would come back as himself.”
But the signs of a troubled mind were apparent even before his devastating KO in May last year at the hands of the Filipino Manny Pacquiao, ironically himself a fighter faced by accusations that he has used performance-enhancing drugs and whose planned bout against Mayweather earlier this year collapsed in acrimony over blood testing.
Hatton’s binge-eating, his weight yo-yoing between 10 and 13 stone and his increasingly erratic public pronouncements culminated in the exposure of his cocaine use when he was covertly filmed during a night out with an Irish women’s boxing champion in which he acknowledged he drank 11 pints of Guinness, four vodkas, two glasses of wine and several Sambucas.
It’s not just the consumption of aniseed and liquorice-flavoured Italian liqueurs which stripped away the mythology of Hatton’s ability to stay close to his roots; it’s also the fact any streetwise lad would know that if you’re conspicuously doing drugs in front of a friend and they refuse to participate, there’s probably a reason for that which should give pause for thought.
History tells us that when the fittest of any nation are selected as either combatants or athletes, that there can be an uncomfortable relationship with natural, and artificial, stimulants. From the Berserkers of Norse mythology, to the Zulus at Isandlwana with their marijuana snuff and hallucinogenic mushrooms, to Battle of Britain pilots using methedrine to maintain their high-intensity risk-taking, various societies have always demonstrated huge ambivalence to drug use in certain circumstances.
They have had a long association with sport, certainly more than 200 years, when the opiate laudanum was used to provide stamina in endurance events.
They were identified in the Tour de France nearly a century ago when a famous piece of journalism called The Convicts of the Road quoted a previous champion describing the race thus: “It’s a Calvary. Worse than that, because the road to the Cross has only 14 stations and ours has 15. We suffer from the start to the end. You want to know how we keep going? Here. That’s cocaine.”
Amphetamine first appeared in sport at the Berlin Olympics in Hitler’s Germany in 1936 and athletics has been a battle between the pharmacologists and the authorities ever since.
Many sports people have obsessional and addictive personalities. It’s one of the great clichés that idols have feet of clay. But perhaps that is a consequence of our own unrealistic expectations.
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