For me, anything not banned is fair game

Former Olympic badminton player Susan Egelstaff wades into the increasingly murky world of doping in sport and argues that if a substance enhances performance, and is not illegal, then who are the morality police to say what is ‘against the spirit of sport’ – whatever that is?

When I was a full-time athlete, everything I did was geared towards enhancing my performance. From doing double sessions to not drinking alcohol for months on end, it was all with the aim of gaining an edge. Not an illegal edge, but an edge nevertheless.

In some ways, I had an unfair advantage over some of my competitors – I was fully funded, I could receive physio on a daily basis if I so required, I received the very best medical treatment without having to go on a waiting list for months. This is significant because during the Olympic qualifying campaign for London 2012, I had severe pain in my foot. It wouldn’t go away. And so I got a cortisone injection and within 24 hours, I was completely pain-free and able to continue trekking the globe for Olympic qualifying points, unhindered by injury.

This cortisone injection was, indisputably, performance-enhancing. Without it, I’m not sure I could have continued playing; with it, I qualified for Team GB. I didn’t feel even the tiniest pang of guilt about having the injection. And neither should I have – it was legal after all.

I was never presented with the opportunity during my career to use oxygen chambers, but if I had I almost certainly would grabbed it. I chose not to take creatine, but I know plenty of others who did and I never thought twice about it. Why would I, it wasn’t a banned substance?

The Olympic qualifying period is the most stressful time many elite athletes will ever experience. For me it was all-consuming. I didn’t go a day, in fact, I barely went an hour, without thinking about it. I would have done everything in my power to – legally – secure my place in Team GB. Almost every athlete is the same, and if everything an athlete is doing is legal, who’s to say they shouldn’t?

I say this in the wake of the latest revelations from the Sunday Times investigation which reported that the British doctor, Mark Bonar, has allegedly prescribed performance-enhancing drugs to 150 athletes, including Tour de France cyclists, Premier League footballers and cricket players. The story is as yet unsubstantiated, but it serves to further erode the public’s trust in sport and it encourages greater discussion about whether or not sport is fair.

It is this argument of fairness, and what constitutes fairness, which I have found most interesting in recent months. When Maria Sharapova tested positive for meldonium, a substance which she had been taking for ten years but had only been on WADA’s banned list since January 1, the backlash was immediate and fierce. Intriguingly though, the outcry focused more on the fact that she had been taking meldonium, reportedly prescribed by a doctor, for a decade without an apparent medical need for the drug rather than the fact that she failed a doping test.

The morality police were out in force, decrying Sharapova for taking a drug for its performance-enhancing qualities. It seems likely that if investigations into sport continue, similar cases are likely to emerge, perhaps even in Britain. This condemnation amazed and frankly stupefied me. There was a remarkable number of people who believed themselves qualified to judge what is morally acceptable in sport and what isn’t. Meldonium, despite not being on the banned list for the vast majority of the time that Sharapova took it, was branded unacceptable for an athlete to take. The argument was that it was performance-enhancing, yet despite not being banned, it was ‘against the spirit of sport’, whatever the hell that is.

For me, anything that is not banned by Wada is fair game. Otherwise we enter some kind of limbo state where no one really knows what is acceptable. Who has deemed hyperbaric oxygen chambers acceptable practice when it is quite clearly designed to enhance performance while another, equally legal method of performance-enhancing, is not? Numerous top athletes, from Mo Farah to Novak Djokovic, use oxygen chambers without ever a murmur of dissent that they are bending the rules. There seems to be a completely arbitrary method of deciding that something is morally wrong in sport.

In elite sport, everything is performance-enhancing. Dr Mark Bonar was recorded saying he supplied banned drug such as steroids and human growth hormones to Premier League footballers, tennis players, cyclists and boxers, and if this is revealed to be true then, of course, that is repugnant. But if a medical professional administers drugs which are permitted by Wada, then who has the authority to say this shouldn’t be allowed?

Wada has a banned list for a reason, and testing positive for a substance on that list will, quite rightly, result in a ban. There is not another list entitled ‘Legal But Morally Wrong’.

Sport is a hyper-professional business and it is frankly naive to expect athletes to live by some kind of unwritten moral code which includes substances that are deemed unacceptable despite this not being formalised. Athletes should adhere to Wada’s code and if they don’t, they should be hammered for it. That is, for me, the only set of rules that can be used to govern sport.


Susan Egelstaff is a former Olympic badminton player Susan’s latest articles.

6 thoughts on “For me, anything not banned is fair game

  • 7th April 2016 at 1:07 pm

    On the whole I agree, however…I think the ‘morality police were out in force’ with Sharapova because they suspected that she was lying about the the reason for taking it, even if not breaking the rules by using it (before Jan 1st).

    And combine that with the ‘I’m a slightly foolish victim’ media manipulation, it all gets a bit sick inducing.

    It would be more helpful if athletes at least admitted they use things like Meldonium purely for performance enhancement, rather than make up ludicrous medical reasons. And then that raises the question of where these drugs are sourced and administered.

  • 8th April 2016 at 9:17 am

    I think you’ve nicely illustrated why we need organisations like WADA. If WADA didn’t exist, by your logic would it be perfectly acceptable to take any non-illegal substance offering an edge? Whatever it might do to your health in the future when you’re no longer at international level? Who knows what long-term meldonium use will do to Sharapova in future? As I understand it, meldonium is only supposed to be used in short courses, it’s not for long-term use even for the conditions it’s meant to treat. So chances are, no-one’s studied its health effects when used as Sharapova was using it.

  • 8th April 2016 at 10:54 am

    Nicely put, but what is it with cheating with drugs or other substances/techniques that causes such hand-wringing? Blatant cheating is an inherent part of many sports and nobody bats an eyelid. Take football as just one example. Dive in the box to secure a penalty? No problem, guv’. Feign impact and severe injury to have an opponent sent off? That’ll do nicely, mate. It’s there for all to see, week in, week out. The authorities do absolutely nothing. Kids grow up thinking it’s normal. It’s not.

    It seems to me that we need to work on the ethics of fair play, then the use of banned substances may take on a different hue.

  • 8th April 2016 at 8:57 pm

    I think the issue here is that WADA needs to be more consistent and more transparent about what gets put on the banned list and why. The 3 criterias that they have to put a substance/method on the banned list is purposely vague and arbitrary. That’s a problem.
    In 2006, WADA’s ethics committee ruled that using hyperbaric champers was actually unethical and goes “against the spirit of the sport”, but needed more research to be able to put it on the banned list. 10 years later, not even on a monitoring list, and you have top athletes all over the world proudly taking selfies next to them. Or even dishing out 20,000 to build one in their own homes.

    I’m not saying that I think the use of hyperbaric chambers should be on the banned list, mostly because I don’t know where the line should be when it comes to “acceptable” performance enhancers and “unacceptable” performance enhancers. That’s something WADA should focus on making clear.

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