This article represents a very personal viewpoint and is more of a Newsmule editorial than a news article as such. Please feel free to add your comments below.
The issue of drugs in sport is one which becomes ever more contentious as the methods of evasion become increasingly sophisticated.
The recent case in tennis, where Andre Agassi admitted to lying to drugs officials in 1997 about the circumstances under which Crystal Methamphetamine found its way into his system, has opened up the debate in a sport which was previously considered relatively clean.
The most sane point amongst the needless hysteria and media clamour was made by Agassi himself, who noted that such a thing could not happen in tennis in 2009 as the regulations have been tightened significantly.
The issue was essentially that Agassi, as he admitted in his autobiography, had taken Crystal Meth for recreational purposes and immediately regretted it – well, one the comedown kicked in anyhow. Up until that point it appears he had a phenomenal time. When the presence of the drug was picked up in his sample, he told testing officials that his drink had been spiked by a member of his team and the member in question had since been fired. This was a lie.
That was 12 years ago and nowadays taking the wrong cure for a common cold can potentially lead to a year long ban from competition, so lying really won’t cut it any more.
What followed this startling revelation by one of tennis’ all-time greats was a raft of media interest and all sorts of questions being raised. Legitimate questions were aired, such as ‘how many other players have escaped a ban by lying to cover their tracks?’ – pun intended.
Predictably though when drugs issues are involved, there were some preposterous questions posed. Some pondered whether Agassi should be stripped of his honours as he had now exposed himself as a ‘drugs cheat’.
Now, pardon my trademark flippancy, but any competitor who can take Crystal Meth and still compete for Grand Slam prizes should probably be given some sort of extra award for his efforts and should certainly donate his body to science.
Crystal Meth has been known to cause paranoia, anxiety, irritability, heart palpitations, cardiovascular problems and psychosis. These are hardly the types of symptoms one would wish for at match point down in the French Open final.
So whilst Agassi was hardly a regular user, having tried it and realised he was about to throw his career away, the issue does bring the attention to the difference between drug types and the notion that all those who fail drugs tests are by definition ‘cheats’.
Agassi gained no performance advantage from his brief foray into Crystal Meth, but tried it due to external pressures. When former Chelsea footballer Adrian Mutu was sacked by the Blues after he tested positive for cocaine, he had gained no performance advantage. Indeed, living life on London’s cocaine party circuit is highly likely to have a severely detrimental effect on the performance of any top sportsperson.
Mutu was treated as if he was Ben Johnson or Dwain Chambers – men who deliberately used drugs to gain a performance advantage over their rivals. Some have looked for Agassi to be treated the same way. But surely there should be different rules for those who have what wider society knows as ‘a drug problem’, rather than pillorying them along in a similar manner to those who have sought to cheat their way to victory?
Prominent sports stars have an exaggerated list of temptations in front of them and have to perform in extremely high pressure environments. How many of us have their disposable income? How many of us have been attacked by members of the public because we had a poor day at work, or work for an unpopular company? Most of us don’t get screamed at by 60,000 people when we go to work. This is a potentially explosive combination.
These sports stars are no different to the rest of us in their methods of dealing with pressure, no matter what we wish to think. They are, by the virtue of their talent, foisted into the position of role models. This is not something they choose, but something that comes with their exceptional abilities.
Those who have sought escape from these pressures, rather than an illegal competitive advantage, should be offered help. Mutu was not only fired, but has to pay his former employer around £15m for his ‘breach of contract’.
If such stars are role models for youngsters, then what does such an inflexible and hard line approach teach those youngsters about compassion in society? Sport does not exist in a bubble and its attitude towards those with drug problems should reflect the ways in which wider society wishes to address the problem. If one of your loved ones had a cocaine problem, would you prefer they received punishment or treatment?
To suggest that Mutu should never be allowed to play professional football again is nearly as idiotic as the calls for Agassi to be retrospectively stripped of his titles.
All sports need to separate the two different types of drug taking and consider how cheats can be stopped, but also how young men and women under huge amounts of pressure can best be protected.
By failing in this respect, the governing bodies of various sports are also failing to protect those who make sport the great money making spectacle that allows officialdom to recline in self-satisfactory comfort.