Sunday 16 December 2012

Sports personality of the year: what’s it got to do with drugs in sport?

Athletes as role models

Tonight in Britain the BBC will host a veritable orgy of UK sport self-aggrandizement as it celebrates its Sports Personality of the Year Award. And why not? 2012 has been a year like no other. The short list has been extended from ten to twelve [1] and includes eleven Olympic and Paralympic gold medallists (many with more than one gold) the Tour de France winner, US open tennis champion and the US PGA golf champion who heads the current money list in both Europe and the USA. The complete short list is: Nicola Adams, Ben Ainslie, Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, Katherine Grainger, Sir Chris Hoy, Rory McIlroy, Andy Murray, Ellie Simmonds, Sarah Storey, David Weir and Bradley Wiggins. Double Olympic gold medallists Charlotte Dujardin and Laura Trott didn’t even make this top 12.

So there is no doubt we have an elite set of athletes who are role models for being single minded in achieving success. And I should add coaches as the UK cycling supremo David Brailsford could walk into a top job in any FTSE 100 company given his organizational and motivational skills.

But should these athletes be role models in life as well as in sport? During the summer here was much grumbling about the lifestyle and uncouth nature of premiership footballers compared to our Olympic heroes. Indeed even the crowds were different as I noted when I watched Team GB playing football at Wembley compared to England. Watching football at the Olympics was an altogether more wholesome experience, not least because of the much higher proportion of women and children in the crowd. The feeling was more good-natured and less tribal – much more like watching an “American” football or baseball match [2].

We should be careful not to view this all through middle class rose-tinted spectacles. Some of my best experiences of watching football have been standing in the terraces at a lower league English football match when your side scores the winning goal and the stadium literally rocks. And UK Olympic gold medallists are far more likely to come from privileged private school backgrounds than their premiership football counterparts [3].

Yet the question remains should we look up to our elite sports people as role models for life as well as sports performance? I have always thought we should take athletes on their own terms, warts and all. If they play or run fast, I don’t care about their personal life or habits. Ryan Giggs may have an unsavoury love life but, even though he plays football for Manchester United, I can still admire him as an athlete.

How does this relate to drugs in sport? Well in order to be banned a doping agent or method needs to fail two out of three tests. The three tests are that it is: performance enhancing; harmful to health; and against the “spirit of sport”. The latter is defined by the World Anti Doping Agency” as the celebration of the human spirit, body and mind, characterized by values such as: Ethics, fair play and honesty; Health; Excellence in performance; Character and education; Fun and joy; Teamwork; Dedication and commitment; Respect for rules and laws; Respect for self and other Participants; Courage; Community and solidarity. Motherhood and apple pie were surprisingly left of this list, but you can get the drift of this message.

Recreational drugs are banned in many sports even though there is no good data that they are performance enhancing (cocaine springs to mind). But they are still harmful to health and against the spirit of sport. Two strikes means you are out. Giving evidence to the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in 2006 the then UK Minister of Sport Richard Caborn said that he would wish to “look very seriously” at the Prohibited List with a view to removing what he believes are “social drugs”. The Minister felt that WADA’s role was to root out cheats in sport and to stop athletes using drugs which enhance performance, rather than to be in the “business of policing society” [4].

What do people think today? I assumed that Richard Caborn’s views would be commonplace. I was therefore surprised when I asked the question of to my University of Essex undergraduate students. They were strongly of the opinion that elite athletes are role models and therefore if they are caught taking recreational drugs they should be banned from sport. Of course it is possible that those who spoke up in the lecture were the most anti-drug, but I didn’t get that impression. It seems the youth of today do really care about their sportspeople as more than just athletic machines. They want them to be great people as well as great athletes. Not for the first time in my 50th decade, I felt a bit out-of-touch with young people and somewhat humbled by their idealism.


[2] I should note in passing that there was nothing quite so wholesome about some of the football. Senegal were one of the dirtiest teams I have ever watched. It was a bit like watching Holland play Spain in the last world cup final - the most brutal tackles you would see in a Sunday pub league intermixed with the silky skills of a top premiership club.