Drugs: when sport isn't sport

ROHIT BRIJNATH

LANCE ARMSTRONG had testicular cancer. It spread to his brain. Doctors gave him less than a 25 per cent chance of surviving. Now he's just won his fourth Tour De France, a race whose difficulty leaves grown men weeping in fear.

Lance Armstrong trains harder than everyone else. He cycles in the rain, and in sleet, and in the sun, mile after mile, and when his body cries for rest, he cycles even more.

Lance Armstrong has the heart of a lion and the lungs of a deep sea diver and the will of Alexander the Great. But what he needs most is the hide of a rhino. People say he's a freak; people also say he's on drugs.

He cannot be that good, they say, and he cannot be that good after cancer. It doesn't matter if he's passed every drug test, that his urine's clean, and his blood, some people will not be convinced.

Lance Armstrong says, and with some sadness, that there is a growing group of cynics who do not believe that the best athletes in the world are clean.

He's right. Question is: are the cynics wrong? Are we right to be incredulous or is such scepticism wrong? Are we damning great athletes wrongly or rightly doubtful of their achievements?

Forget great athletes, what about lesser ones, like say Indian athletes? Forget the vials and syringes swept away during National Games. Just ask the athletes. Once I did. Confronted with a list of 10 banned substances, a 100m national level runner pointed out 6-7 which were easily available at a chemist's shop next to Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Then he asked me to write down the names of three substances he hadn't heard of.

Why, I asked. "Because if they're illegal, they must be good," he replied.

He told me if athletes across the world take drugs, then so should he. He was wrong about the second part, but right about the first. Take for example, just the past month or so:

*At the Manchester Commonwealth Games, a Canadian triathlete was sent home after failing a dope test.

*A host of cycling's top men didn't show up for the Tour De France because they were banned; the rider who came third this year, Raimondas Rumas was under scrutiny because pharmaceutical products were found in his wife's car.

*Claudia Poll, an Atlanta Olympic swimming gold medallist from Costa Rica earned a four-year ban for drug use.

*A former US baseball star admitted that he used steroids and that it was rampant in his sport.

*The head of the Australian Sports Drugs Agency was quoted as saying "tennis was heavily under the influence of doping".

I could go on. But in short, it confirms what we already know. Which is:

Some shooters take beta blockers to steady their nerves. So do some billiards players. Some swimmers have steroids for lunch. Some tennis players have them for tea.

Triathletes like HGH, the human growth hormone. Weightlifters don't mind an in injection or two. Shot putters get high on EPO.

Baseball players want muscles overnight. Soccer players a quick-fix to more stamina. Cyclists slurp down diuretics (which hide traces of steroids) just, you know, in case.

Simply put, where there's a (criminal) will there's a (illegal) way.

The fact is, athletes take drugs. Many of them. But the fact is, the human body, aided by the human mind, and without any artificial, illegal aid, is still capable of heroic feats. It's why there is a residue of sympathy for men like Armstrong. Great deeds by great men are being coloured by the impropriety of lesser men.

Every time an athlete produces a feat of unique strength or athleticism, it is viewed with a raised eyebrow.

It's why great athletes and nations need to set an example and speak out. Mostly they don't.

Weeks ago, Rick Reilly, a Sports Illustrated columnist, did something extraordinary. He asked baseball's home-run hero Sammy Sosa (who had said he would be the first in line to be tested if the league made it mandatory), to volunteer for a drug test. Reilly, who offered him the address of a laboratory, made sense: he said why wait, do the test, show you're clean, set an example. Sosa told him to leave, but not so politely.

Weeks ago an Australian shooter Phillip Adams tested positive for a banned substance prior to the Commonwealth Games. But Australian officials cleared him to compete. They said he had taken it inadvertently as part of his blood pressure medication. That it wasn't performance enhancing. They were right, and they were wrong.

It was a silly mistake but it was a mistake. Athletes are given lists of banned substances and are supposed to check it against any medication. If you bend the rules this time, then we have to bend them again; if Australia bends the rules, they cannot complain when someone else does. The next time an athlete says (and this has happened) that his toothpaste was spiked with illegal drugs, will we let him go too?

Weeks ago at Wimbledon, Jennifer Capriati was asked what she thought of out-of competition drug testing. She wasn't impressed. "I just don't think they have any right to kind of see what's going on inside your body, whatever, even if you're not doing anything. I don't see really what the point would be.''

The point is that a handful of men's players have tested positive, like Argentinians Juan Ignacio Chela and Guillermo Coria. The point is kids just want to know if those muscles came from sweat or a syringe. The point is if you've got nothing to hide then it doesn't matter. The point is not to embarrass Capriaiti, or suspect her, but that by welcoming testing, at any time, she'd be demanding her peers to do the same, she'd be doing her sport a favour, she'd be setting an example.

Capriati and Sosa may have never heard of Paula Radcliffe, the middle and long-distance runner, but maybe they should have.

When Radcliffe, who is strongly anti-drugs, ran the London Marathon recently, she did so on the condition that elite athletes would be blood-tested.

Radcliffe, like Armstrong, is hard-working and she runs through sleet, and the rain, and when her body cries for rest, she runs even more. And she's tired of running clean in a dirty sport. And so she speaks out.

In short, Paula Radcliffe is challenging the cheats. So should Capriati, so should Sosa. So should every great athlete. It's the only way for sport to right this wrong.