Drugs in sport: what constitutes ‘unfair advantage’?

In the debate on the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport, what should we consider an unfair advantage? www.shutterstock.com

At the heart of growing concern about performance enhancing drugs in Australian sport is the very basic matter of sport as an even contest.

As Roy and H.G. used to put it, no one is particularly interested in an exhibition of a man kicking a dog. Sport is the pursuit (and the industry) it’s become because those who play it and those who watch it desire, and now expect, a close contest between relatively equally matched teams or individuals.

While some fans might wish to have their team win every game by a street, this outcome would be a turn-off for other fans, broadcasters, sponsors, administrators, and many others. The same is obviously true for a mismatch in boxing or tennis.

So, the idea that some teams or individuals are using drugs in a bid to defeat not just their opponents but the contest itself needs to be confronted. Punishments need to be meted out. But are we overreacting?

Before I go further, let me stress that I’m dealing here only with the use of drugs in sport deemed by officials to be performance enhancing to the point of creating an unfair advantage. My comments do not apply to any drug use that is illegal under Australian law (federal or state), which is a matter for the police and the courts (and for commentators qualified in that area).

When we leave illegal drugs out of the argument, it is vital that we answer a double-barreled question: what advantages are unfair and, at the other end of the problem, what is to count as a level playing field?

On the first issue, should we treat what’s regarded as a fair advantage in some domains as unfair in sport? If someone playing in the Tasmanian badminton championship, for example, has taken cold tablets for the two days before the tournament to help them get through their job as a librarian (a fair advantage, surely), should we regard this as a step down the Lance Armstrong path the minute that player takes the court, or should we treat it as we would treat any of us taking a cold tablet as we head off to work – not be tested and not to be frowned upon?

And what if the attempt to gain an advantage doesn’t work? Should the investigation into Cronulla’s supposedly enhanced performance in the 2011 NRL season take into account the fact that they finished 14th of 16 teams that year? Or the fact that in 46 seasons in the top flight they’ve never won anything?

In other words, how are we to measure the difference between Armstrong winning the Tour de France seven times and a team used to losing coming third last in the NRL 2011? Are the present proposed penalties too harsh for such (alleged) offences? Why are we considering punishing fans and entire competitions for the sort of offences being investigated in this case (wherever the investigation ends up going)?

Is Lance Armstrong’s systemic doping as bad as an individual footballer being unknowingly administered a substance? AAP/Oprah.com

Zealotry, in my opinion, is not the sign of a healthy society, but one too obsessed with perfection and too keen to punish those who aren’t perfect. Think Salem witch hunts, or their McCarthyist equivalents. I doubt that most Australians want their sport to be absolutely pure. Sure, they don’t want it rigged, but there are many degrees of minor adulteration before one gets to “rigged” or “corrupt”. Some of these minor adulterations are treated as folklore.

The matter of defining a level playing field is even more complex. Are we hankering for contests between teams or individuals that rely only on their “natural” abilities, free from the “taint” of money and the drugs and other advantages it can buy?

If so, this could be another case of wrongly aiming for a mythical standard of perfection, putting us in danger of basing our system for determining unfair advantage on the old ideal of amateurism, which reigned in an era when television was barely interested in sport.

Surely it would be better if we could sort out the unfair advantage problem more sensibly, so that we can continue to enjoy access to sport in ways we couldn’t dream about even in the sixties and seventies.

And if we are going to be purists, why should we stop at drugs? Doesn’t unequal access to training facilities and expertise create what some might consider an unfair advantage? Shouldn’t we make sure every athlete and every team has equal access?

What about access to good food? Should Olympic athletes from poor countries be given the same access to the performance boosting diets enjoyed by those from rich countries?

I’m obviously being ridiculous here in a bid to drive home my point. It would be madness to try to equalise absolutely everything. It would be like insisting every cricket Test be played at a neutral venue with wickets scientifically tested and adjusted hourly to make sure conditions are the same for both sides.

Life just isn’t like that. Sport in a complex modern society like Australia requires complex modern procedures, procedures which acknowledge differences and issue punishments in a spirit of tolerance and with a determination to be reasonable to the sportsmen and women who give so much pleasure to the rest of us, sometimes for big rewards, often not.