A good year for the good guys?

2013-01-12 00:00

LAST year, the biggest story in the world of sport was the eventual unmasking of Lance Armstrong as the most ruthless cheat in history.

It takes some doing to build an empire on the back of a sustained period of doping that involved many other people. It could not have been done without the connivance of fellow team-members, associates and medical practitioners, all people who should have known better.

It also helped that Armstrong has an extraordinary ability to lie consistently over and over again.

The most sinister aspects of the sordid story were the mafia-like bullying of all those people who refused to believe in the Armstrong miracle, as well as his cynical use of cancer sufferers to build for himself an untouchable reputation in his home country and elsewhere.

His story, of course, is by no means over. Those whom he defrauded are almost certain to want their money back and Armstrong himself is bound to mount some sort of “mea culpa” in order to salvage something out of his ruined reputation.

Americans like nothing more than a comeback by fallen heroes, a fact quickly exploited by Tiger Woods and those round him.

It would be naïve to believe that the collapse of the Armstrong myth will lead to cleaner, dope-free sport where cheats of all kinds no longer prosper.

An important relevant question is to ask from where in sport is the next doping scandal likely to emerge? All of the endurance and contact sports are likely candidates.

Is rugby as clean as all of us would like to believe? Dr Jon Patricios, who has spent many years of his life in and around rugby circles, told a strange story to members of the Johannesburg Sportsmen’s Club at a luncheon late last year. He said that when he joined the Golden Lions as their medical doctor in the middle 1990’s, he was instructed to give every player a Voltaren injection prior to all matches.

Voltaren is a highly effective anti-inflammatory agent and the purpose of the exercise must have been to reduce the pain a player would experience during the normal course of a rugby match. Presumably, such a practice was neither illegal then nor now, but it illustrates the reliance that rugby had even then on the local chemist. In addition, there must be some questions about its wisdom of using anti-inflammatory agents in such a manner.

What are the consequences of masking pain which is one of the body’s defences against the aggravation of any injury? What are the long-term side effects associated with taking anti-inflammatory agents from a young age? Does this practice still exist in professional rugby and; more importantly, has it ever taken place in schoolboy rugby?

What else is going on in rugby that has yet to see the light of day?

If the endurance of a player can be enhanced chemically, are we to believe that not a single player or coach in the game fails to refrain from getting involved with doping?

The odds against such purity in such a brutal game would not be great. We know that American football is rife with doping of many forms. Why would professional rugby union be any different other than the fact that all its players are regularly tested? Are the testers now so far ahead of the games played by dopers that doping is now too risky?

The point of the Armstrong story is that wherever the rewards of sport are great, as they are in the modern world, the temptation to secure an illegal edge over competitors is irresistible for many athletes.

Even where the rewards are merely that of reputation, such as in South African schoolboy rugby, we know that the use of steroids to build muscle mass is practiced by many of our young players and encouraged by coaches

I wonder about tennis. At the highest level it is a grueling sport. Winning a Grand Slam event requires the playing of seven best-of-five set matches for men (three sets for women) over a fortnight. Of course, not all matches run the full course. The top players try to finish their early round matches without expending much energy, but they can run into a four-hour match at any stage of a tournament. Often, they have less than 48 hours to recover from such matches.

Are we to believe that no tennis player has succumbed to the temptation to hasten a recovery from exhaustion or to avoid exhaustion altogether or to recover from an injury quickly enough to play in the next round? That someone like Roger Federer should have done so is beyond the imagination of the most cynical of us, but there are enough current players and coaches from Eastern Europe, the home of doping in athletics, to suggest that a little reality is required from those who control the sport.

Doping is one of the more depressing developments of modern professional sport. Its survival depends on the ability of the dopers to keep ahead of those doing the testing. The evidence of the past decade is not reassuring for those who love sport and treasure its origins from an amateur era when doping was unheard of and sport was played for the fun of it.

Let us hope that this is a good year for the good guys. Sport has the ability to lift people in difficult times. Look what a golden year of sport has done for morale in the United Kingdom and imagine how the Poms would feel if it was now revealed that Bradley Wiggins and all the Olympic cyclists from Great Britain had been the beneficiaries of chemical assists?

This brings me back to Dr Jon Patricios and the Voltaren injections. His response when asked to do the injections was to say that he would do them if that was what was required, but was bound to say that suppositories would be more effective. He, however, was not prepared to do the insertions!

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