The Messy Business Of Sports Doping

I despised Andre Agassi when I first saw his long wispy hair and that gold earring; a desert rat with tacky jewellery. He came from Las Vegas. That explains it I thought.

But now that I realise he hated tennis and took crystal meth because of his overbearing ex-boxer father, who “built a backyard prison just for him”, I feel a little sorry for him. The brash demeanour of those early days was the product of a tortured soul. 

It is apparent now that the professional era of sport has been awash with infusions, injections,  and enhancements.  Sport is a livelihood and for some a source of greatness so the urge to maintain or improve performance illegally must be a powerful one.  And then to live the life of the famous, or to escape it, there are the ‘recreational’  drugs.

So with the current knowledge it’s a little more difficult to be judgemental and perhaps it’s even time to right past injustices. 

How is life now for poor Ben Johnson? Impoverished, disgraced. Why? We now know that Carl Lewis was on drugs too. Johnson beat Lewis with that scintillating display in the 1988 Olympic final. It was a performance that should have led to the Olympic recall of the 60 metres – the real sprint. Unfortunately the sight of its runners at the indoor event slamming into a mattress on the wall hasn’t done it any favours. 

Johnson had the explosive power of the true sprinter. Lewis had the wind up action of a two legged giraffe in white socks.

Johnson was using good old fashioned anabolic steroids which build muscle mass. The history of isolating steroids from testicles involved a Nobel Prize winning German chemist wading through “tens of thousands of litres of urine”.

Another product used by athletes in power sports is the equine-derived growth hormone (Lewis must have used giraffes).  Australian track sprint cyclist Mark French was convicted (later rescinded due to lack of evidence) and banned in 2004 for using it. At the initial hearing  he implicated track legends Shane Kelly and Sean Eadie.

 Now while ‘recreational’ drugs like crystal meth and cocaine taken prior to a game can assist a player by enhancing concentration and reducing fatigue, long term use is actually performance inhibiting. It is only a matter of time before your career comes crashing down in shards of … crystal.

If a long term user of recreational drugs can win an elite event it is, in fact, a great achievement. Perhaps, as with the Special Olympics, categories can be introduced to highlight this fact. The legacy of Andre Agassi would have been even greater if there had been an Olympic Mens Singles – Crystal Methamphetamine Affected.

It’s also hard not to be impressed , and sickened at the same time, by some of these drugs and doping methods. 

Crystal meth. A great sounding name that, if you ignore the meth (too like metho). So  gorgeously twinkly, like something Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka would have dreamt up (what sort of trip were they on in that boat tunnel?). Johnny Depp in the lame remake looked like he may have been on something too.

I’ve always loved the name of Crystal Palace for a team (Tottenham Hotspurs is a good one also) and imagine them prancing around inside a glistening gilded dome, instead of the concrete and wet brick dive of South London they actually train in.

The major practise in endurance sports appears to be the use of EPO, a hormone that can be used to increase red blood cell production. EPO was also used by sprinters such as Johnson and Marion Jones because it can assist in recuperation from events and recovery from injury. It may also reduce lactic acid and hence the extent of  “jelly legs” experienced by sprinters over the closing stages of a race. 

The French sports daily L’Equipe claims it has EPO samples from Lance Armstrong taken during the 1999 Tour de France.  Armstrong may have used EPO when it couldn’t be detected but then so was everyone else. The French don’t like Armstrong because he’s so un-European – and Texan.  He dominated their race with the meticulousness and mind numbing banality of a NASA mission. He even looks like Buzz Aldrin.

It’s more likely that Armstrong’s survival from cancer (strengthening his resolve,  changing his personality and body shape) was the reason a one-day Classics specialist was transformed into a Tour legend.

Clever, and no doubt highly paid, doctors have continually altered the molecular structure of the hormone to avoid detection by the prevailing anti-doping tests. As Dr No said: “The successful criminal brain is always superior. It has to be”.

The other known methods are testosterone injection (Cyclist Cadel Evans sounds like he’s on  female hormones), and blood doping. The latter involves injecting your own, or someone elses, blood.  

 To do this you need to keep the blood satchels in the refrigerator and be wary of raids by  doping officials and family members:-

Mrs Vinokourov: “Alexander, those raspberry pops I found hanging in the fridge taste        absolutely AWFUL!”

A legal form of blood treatment used on rugby league player Daniel Mortimer’s injured hip involved withdrawing blood, infusing it with an increased concentration of platelets “rich in healing properties” and reinjecting it into the hip tendon. That brings to mind unfortunate images of Manly players slurping on their calves’ blood smoothies: “Can I have some soy milk in this Des?”

Apparently cyclists have a good idea when a competitor is doping. The key indicators are : continual surges during a stage  (eg Vinokourov- blood doping 2007 Tour de France), extreme fluctuations in performance (eg Floyd Landis-testosterone 2006 Tour de France) and marked improvements (eg current Tour champion Albert Contador’s change of status  from poor time triallist to one of the best has raised some suspicion). 

So, for anyone presently struggling in suburban sporting competitions remember to embrace your ordinariness because apparently the only way to sporting greatness is to have one, or a  combination, of the following: a) a terrible upbringing  b) drugs or  c) a terminal cancer prognosis.

P.S. If you can’t afford crystal meth is there a glass version?

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