Many Olympics ago I wrote in a newspaper article that perhaps it was time to do away with drug testing. If athletes were willing to risk their careers and their future, then let that be their choice. After all, we were not looking for the most morally upright runner, merely the fastest man (or woman). Whatever helped the athlete run faster, jump higher or leap farther ought to be allowed.
The surprising response to this came from a vice president of the International Olympic Committee. Yes, it is a personal choice, he said, and perhaps there should be nothing illegal about drugs at all. But he said this argument failed to take into account how it placed at a disadvantage the poorer countries which had no budget for labs and drugs research.
Drugs are both a moral and health issue. They are also a technology issue — build a better drug with no side-effects and the world will beat a path to you door, as Emerson nearly said. But better shoes, javelins and equipment in general are also technological issues that separate the haves from the have-nots.
We would like to believe that the Olympics is about participating, not about winning or losing, but in the real world that is as naive as you can get. Russia’s recent state-sponsored drugs programme involving more than a thousand athletes led to a ban from the winter Olympics.
Sport and national prestige are tied together, and while it may be difficult for a single individual to beat the system, with the help of the state it is very simple. Switching of samples, considered impossible, was easily accomplished in Russia by those trained to do so.
Where does all this leave India, whose athletes, boxers and wrestlers have failed the drugs test in recent years. The National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) lacks bite. It has tested only a third of the number it set out to do. Its inefficiency has prompted the country’s biggest sporting body, the Board of Control for Cricket in India to ignore it regardless of consequences.
Yet, the BCCI, as was recently shown in the case of Yusuf Pathan, does not have an efficient substitute either. The cricketer played in the period he was supposedly banned (the ban was back-dated), and great care was taken by the BCCI not only to defend his actions but also to ensure that his IPL earnings would not suffer. Touching concern, but just not cricket. Pathan might have been an innocent victim — difficult to say since he has been under the scanner before — but ought to have known better.
The question is not whether drug-taking is immoral or unhealthy. It is illegal, and once that is accepted, the path is clear. Drug use seems to be one step ahead of detection. The fight against drugs, therefore comes with a built-in handicap. To add inefficiency and incompetence to the mix as both the NADA and BCCI have done inspires little faith in a system dedicated to keeping sports clean.
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