The Mixed Zone editor Sue Mott is anti-drugs in sport. Vehemently anti-drugs. So vehemently, in fact, that lifetime bans for offenders would barely suffice. Yet a lingering virus has left her staring forlornly at her medicine cabinet. To dope or not to dope? That was the question before she dived headlong into the mother of all athletic enterprises
The packet says they’re one of the ‘-olones’. Like Nandrolone, the anabolic steroid for which past athletes like Olympic champion Linford Christie and Jamaican world sprint champion Merlene Ottey once tested positive. You have to take eight – eight! – at one go, with or just after food. So if I’m going to do it, the key moment will be at breakfast time. Early breakfast because the event – a seriously challenging, gruelling, intimidating event – begins outside the local library at 8.15am.
To backtrack for a moment. It was some kind of virus that afflicted me in the spring. I was not alone. Conversations with mates, previously straying into a million eclectic areas from Leicester’s chances to Line of Duty, were fixedly fascinated by sneezing. Loads of us were ill and whatever it was hung about. You could tell doctors suspected me of man-flu tendencies as I tried to wring forbidden antibiotics out of them. But eventually taking pity, a prescription for steroids was written. They reduce inflammation, although I’m not sure what of. Instant cure. The mere name on the packet, plastered with its warnings, seemed to be enough to drive away my month-long distress. I felt better and so, not wishing to pump up like Popeye, I was left with a surplus of these things.
Fast forward to now. I have signed up for the physical exertion of a lifetime. Specifically my lifetime. Obviously, going for a long walk would not register on the Novak Djokovic scale of pure torture and superhuman strenuousness. But in the existence of a non-ripped journalist who 40 years ago could only cover herself in sand and ignominy in the school long-jump pit, it is big.
We start, with rucksacks – it is that serious – by the coast and walk all the way to Canterbury, like lycra-ed modern pilgrims, with only cashew nuts and one pub stop in between. It’s bloody miles – 22 of them – up hill and down Kentish dale, threatening blisters and breathlessness and, even more terribly, having to bail out before the end. It’s further on foot than I have ever gone before, even on holiday. Might the ravages of illness come back to haunt me just as they did Jo Pavey recently in the race to qualify for the Olympic 10,000 metres when she finished down the field after a chest infection?
It’s how it begins. From the taunting stabs of doubt to the lure of chemical enhancement. Pavey scorns such pitiful human weakness, but better, stronger, faster, braver people than me have succumbed – some we know about, many we don’t. And in my case there’s no wheedling coach, looking out for their own reputation by having a champion nestling under their wing. Nor is there a bent doctor paid to pass on infusions of this and phials of that to their own clandestine enrichment. And neither is there a governing body paid in hard cash and kudos for the number of winners their ‘endeavour’ has produced. And nor is there a cynically-established state doping policy overseeing a general atmosphere of skullduggery and winner-takes-all mentality.
For me, it’s just fear and shame, and the memory of finishing up – a spent force – in a teashop in Appledore not so long ago. And that was after just 17 miles over easy ground. I had to get a taxi home.
I am against drugs in sport. Categorically. It’s a curse that defiles human aspiration and achievement. If we wanted to hero-worship pharmacists, presumably we could just cheer in Boots. But my own monstrously hypocritical dilemma puts the pressure on real live athletes in context. People, as a rule, don’t welcome failure. And – worst-case scenario – an athlete can be a very vulnerable, young, lone creature at the top of a pyramid that needs success at all costs to justify its existence.
It is not surprising, for instance, that the International Olympic Committee has apparently opened the door to the admittance of ‘clean’ Russian athletes into the Rio Olympics despite the current ban following multiple infractions of the anti-doping code. The expression ‘clean Russian athletes’ brings you up short. As in ‘kind Isis executioners’, they perhaps can and do exist, but the evidence is pretty scanty.
The Olympic movement is, in effect, a collusion of countries and sports, none of whom wish to see their own raw material – the athlete – brought into disrepute. To that end, these individual components might take their anti-doping policies very seriously. Or they might – Russia, Kenya, Mexico – desperately try to cover them up, some with high-level state interference.
It’s good that suspect countries will be targeted for greater drug testing; it’s bad that some drug cheats will still slip through the net because a) their drug of choice has no test yet; b) they still enjoy the benefits of previous cheating; c) they are given special protection.
Fortunately for me, the Elham Valley Walking Festival does not list doping controls on its website. I could be swilling with steroids and caffeine this morning, eyes bulging like Ben Johnson on Stanozolol at the 1988 Olympic 100 metres final, and they won’t be any the wiser. Even if I was caught I could surely try the Maria Sharapova defence that I was taking my pills for medical purposes – in her case it was Meldonium for a heart condition she didn’t actually have yet, but they say prevention is better than cure.
So, how to proceed? I shall sit there looking at a little box of tricks this morning on the cusp of a fateful decision. On one hand, cheat and I will be the sole loser from a descent into everlasting immorality. On the other hand, live without stain … and find the number of that cab company.
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