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What’s Cheating?

Read Thursday, 12 Jul 2018

Jane Howard looks into changing definitions of cheating, and winning, in elite sport.

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Animation of a muscular arm, flexing, with a spinning pill overlaid

To view the body of an elite sportsperson is to consider the outer limits of human potential. We watch sports not just for the highs and the lows, but because of our fascination with the exceptional: the muscles that expand and contract in just the right way, the legs that push off the ground with just the right energy, the arms that cut through the water with just the right power. The 3.2 billion people watching the World Cup are watching for the highs, staying for the lows, hoping for the wins. But at the same time – even if they are not aware of it – they are studying the bodies and the minds of these elite sportsmen, every movement calculated, a complex improvised dance between foot, ball, and teammates, all just trying for one thing: to win.

Not all sports – not all attempts for gold – have this same dance of complexity as soccer. Track and field events are more acutely about the possibilities of physical achievement: who can run the fastest, who can jump the highest, who can throw the furthest. But athletes at the elite level are not just in competition with the rivals they line up against at each meet. They are placing their bodies at the start line in competition with human history. The goal: not only to win this race, but to win all races. To be the best ever.

We are unlikely to see the best, though. Not again. By best estimates there are dozens of track and field world records unlikely to ever be beaten. Set in the Eighties and early Nineties, largely by athletes from the Eastern Bloc, it is widely believed – though strongly denied – that these athletes were playing a different game. Most likely, they reached the outer limits of physical achievement with the aid of doping.

Last year, the European Athletics Association recommended 74 track and field records set before 2005 – before storage of urine and blood samples – be erased. But what would it mean if we erased this history of wins, and pretended that what we are now is the best we can be? So what of a clean era of sports, if everyone is playing a less interesting game?

Our ideas about sport, and sporting excellence, have changed dramatically over the past century. The film of the 1948 London Olympics, for example, shows scenes of chaos. There’s a fist fight in the cycling road race, and the women’s 200m sprint take place on a muddy track. This was back before Olympic stadiums were built to the highest engineering standards and back when athletes had to be amateurs.

‘To be a professional athlete in the early days of the Modern Olympics was seen as its own form of doping: a distinct unfair advantage …’

To be a professional athlete in the early days of the Modern Olympics was seen as its own form of doping: a distinct unfair advantage and a kind of bad faith. Winning at the Olympics was a sign of valour; receiving payment or endorsements would sully a sportsperson’s image.

The rules around amateurism at the Olympics were abandoned after the 1988 Games for two reasons. One was the rise of the importance of commercial TV: advertisers and viewers were demanding more skill and competition. The other reason was perceived cheating across the USSR. Soviet Olympians were presented as students or soldiers, but were largely training full time. After essentially ignoring the truth about these professional athletes for decades, the IOC finally opted to drop the rules officially. Training full-time, once seen as a form of cheating, was now perfectly acceptable – and even expected – in order to enhance the Olympic excitement and spectacle.

So what about cheating with drugs? If we’re never again going to see someone beat the woman’s 400 metres or the men’s long-jump, wouldn’t it be better to let athletes dope – just so we could truly understand what humans can achieve?

‘For every Lance Armstrong, who succeeds in their doping goals, there are dozens, if not hundreds, who fail.’

Different drugs affect athletes in different ways. Drugs don’t work as a magical proxy; an athlete has to have an incredibly strong physical foundation first. For every Lance Armstrong, who succeeds in their doping goals, there are dozens, if not hundreds, who fail (an estimated 15 to 39% of elite athletes dope, according to a 2015 study published in Sports Medicine journal). Armstrong participated in blood doping, which uses transfusions or hormones to increase the amount of oxygen that can be carried in the blood stream. Similarly, Maria Sharapova’s use of meldonium was to increase blood flow. Steroids can be taken to increase muscle mass and function, and narcotics can be used to suppress pain. Ritalin can be taken to increase concentration and recently featured in a potential doping scandal in chess (the World Chess Federation’s anti-doping handbook runs to 72 pages).

We call these types of enhancements doping, but there are a lot of ways athletes can improve their bodies legally. There’s altitude training and hypoxic air tents to increase red blood cells, to say nothing of simply being able to afford better equipment and training. Then there are new ways of ‘cheating’, still in development, such as transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) to increase cognitive enhancement. TDCS is undetectable using current drug screening methods.

Animation of a syringe pumping out trophy-winning athletes

So why do we ban doping, when there are so many ways athletes can disproportionately increase their chances of winning? According to physicist, author and distance runner Alex Hutchinson, there are ‘three pillars’ to anti-doping perspectives: performance-enhancement, violation of ‘the spirit of the sport’ and the potential to cause harm to athletes. Substances or techniques are banned if they meet two out of three criteria.

For former Australian Labor senator John Black, who lead the senate inquiry into drugs in sport in 1988, anti-doping practices are ‘saving athletes’ lives’. This is a serious concern of doping, but what, then, of the other two of Hutchinson’s pillars? If professionalism in sports was once seen as a way of ‘enhancing performance and ‘violating the spirit of the sport’, is it possible doping could go the same way?

The numbers for dealing with anti-doping in Australia are staggering. Some experts have openly wondered if the cost of testing is worth it. According to the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) 2016/17 annual report, the body received about $12 million from the Australian Government this last year. With other income streams, including carry-over from the previous year, ASADA had more than $21 million in resources. That money doesn’t just go towards blood and urine testing – ASADA does prevention work and investigates potential tampering and trafficking violations, for example – and testing isn’t the only way to catch athletes doping. But the tests themselves aren’t catching out a lot of athletes right now. Out of 5658 tests conducted on athletes in 2016/2017, the body found just 37 possible violations.

One of the world’s best athletes at the moment – and certainly the best female artistic gymnast the world has ever seen – is the 145cm, 21-year-old, pocketful of muscles, Simone Biles. In just four years on the senior elite competitive stage, she has won 19 World Championship and Olympic medals – 14 gold. She won the 2016 Olympic all-around by a margin of 2.10 points – the margin between first and second at the 2012 games was 0.26 points. 

Yet, had Biles been a gymnast at almost any other point in history it is doubtful she would be this dominant. She is perhaps the sport’s biggest beneficiary of the abandonment of the ‘perfect 10’ scoring system, replaced in 2006 with an open-ended system rewarding dynamism, power, endurance and degree of difficulty over the more traditional ‘artistic’ elements related to the sport. Biles benefits, too, from changes to gymnastic equipment: fibreglass bars instead of wood, leather-covered beams, spring floors, a larger and safer vaulting table. Biles’s physical attributes and specific strengths have met the sport at a precise moment in its history. It’s a perfect match.

A leak from the World Anti-Doping Agency database at the last Olympics revealed Biles has a ‘therapeutic-use exemption’ to use Ritalin, which she has taken since she was a child. While the leak was intended to embarrass Biles, she spoke out calmly and clearly against the leak, and about her ADHD, and didn’t tarnish her reputation. The reaction in Russia to the controversy did, however, demonstrate the extent to which our ideas around drugs, pathology and cheating are influenced by cultural context as much as WADA classifications. ADHD diagnoses tend to be treated with suspicion in Russia and Ritalin is banned under all circumstances.

Watching Biles perform, it is obvious her talent comes from – more than anything – a singular physique, aided by strong training, determination and commitment. It’s less obvious but possibly just as pertinent, that she’s aided by sports psychologists. But it’s not beyond the world of the imagination to wonder if this is what her body can achieve innately – with Ritalin to pull her mind into line – what would happen if she could become even more powerful thanks to doping? Or what would the sport be like if other athletes were able to dope, and give her a bit more of a run for her money?

Graphic treatment of gymnast Simone Biles, mid-flight

The problem with cheating isn’t truly in the results. We love to watch people striving to the outer limits of human potential – stories of world records smashed, careers defying the odds. Armstrong was the sporting world’s biggest hero, until he was not. The issue, perhaps, is not cheating, it’s getting caught. So what would happen to sport if cheating by doping was no longer an option – because doping wouldn’t be cheating. It would just be part of the game. How would that shift the ways we understand sport, understand our bodies, understand competition?

And, for now, if someone manages to get around the drug restrictions – isn’t that just another form of winning?

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