Friday, 18 July 2008

Sporting Chance

The Dwain Chambers story over the past few months has been twofold: on the track, a string of performances demonstrating his world-class status; off the track, a succession of attempts by the athletic authorities to ban him from competition, or, when they couldn't succeed, to treat him like a pariah. Just last Saturday, he again proved himself worthy of an Olympic place with a seasonal best performance in the 100 metres at Birmingham. Today, he learns at the High Court that all that effort, all that training, and all those victories have been in vain. He won't be going to Beijing.

The British Olympic Association is obviously delighted with the decision by Mr Justice Mackay. Not only have they upheld their rule; they have also, by their lights, succeeded in their wider aim of "keeping sport clean", something they failed to do earlier this year when they lost their fight to ban him from all competitions, ever. That in so doing they have also succeeded in keeping one of Britain's top medal prospects out of the competition is, no doubt, a point of pride to the authorities. It proves that they are determined to crack down hard on "drug cheats" even at the cost of the nation's athletic prospects. It proves they care about Principle. After all, only two countries in the world enforce such a draconian rule.

The decision isn't surprising, and is probably watertight in law. For one thing, the BOA has had this rule for the past 16 years, long before Chambers was caught using a banned steroid. In that sense his exclusion differs from their earlier attempt to exile him from all competition, which was little more than a vindictive desire to punish him a second time after he had served out his ban. Chambers was, in effect, asking the court to declare the rules themselves illegal. This is something that judges are traditionally loath to do. Professional associations are, within reason, permitted to set their own internal rules and expected to enforce them through their own internal procedures.

The narrative we are being offered is one of rule-breaking punished, zero tolerance and a grim determination on the part of the BOA to show no mercy. It is an appropriately tough message for our increasingly unforgiving times, similar in some ways to the forced resignation of London deputy mayor Ray Lewis, for past improprieties that had no direct bearing on his plans for deprived urban youth; or the case of would-be medical student Majid Ahmed, who lost his place at Imperial as a result of a juvenile conviction that was legally spent. Yet quite a different story could have been told, had the authorities showed more charity and imagination: a story of an athlete who needlessly cheated, who as a consequence lost some of his best years and medal chances, yet who served his time, came back and won fair and square. Not only would this have been a fine tale of repentence and hard work rewarded, it would also have demonstrated to youngsters thinking of taking "performance-enhancing" drugs that they are not worth the risk. A short-cut doping may be; but drugs can't turn a poor athlete into a winner, and ultimately you'll be caught.

With a succession of outstanding performances in recent months, Chambers has conclusively shown that he never needed to "cheat" to excel as an athlete. The rules are designed to deter cheats and reward drugs-free achievement. But Chambers' recent achievements have been undeniably drug-free. It is now nearly five years since he tested positive for a banned steroid. Yet still the vilification continues. So widespread and self-righteous is the chorus of condemnation that greets Chambers whenever he steps out onto the track that it is difficult publicly to dissent. Even to question the absolute evil of drugs in sport invites banishment from the forums of polite debate. Even those with sympathy for Dwain Chambers feel inhibited from expressing it, such is the strength of group-think: he has become a sporting Myra Hindley, unable ever to be released.

What's really going on here? Partly, it's a reaction to the situation that developed in athletics about 30 years ago, when drug-taking became de rigeur among serious athletes with often monstrous results. The East German woman forced to undergo a sex-change after her body was ruined by testosterone was only the most notorious victim of the industrial-scale doping that once went on. Over-use of anabolic steroids had long-term consequences for athletes' health. Something had to be done.

Yet the recent move towards lifetime bans, together with the strict liability enforced at the Olympics - where even genuine, and legal, flu remedies result in exclusion, and no discretion is permitted - goes far beyond what is necessary to prevent cheating and protect athletes' health. It reflects a moralising tendency that has always existed in sport, above all in the Olympic Games, but which has only recently attached itself to drugs. Until a decade or so ago, the moral puritanism focussed, rather, on money. The Games prided themselves on being "amateur", a survival of Victorian days when the distinction between gentleman amateurs and vulgar, lower-class, "players" turned many sports into an expression of the class system. What happened, of course, was that success depended to a large extent on greater or lesser forms of rule-bending. The countries of the Eastern bloc had professional sport in everything but name, while in the West something like a class system operated, with a tiny group of elite athletes getting rich from sponsorship deals and everyone else scrabbling around for paltry government grants.

The Olympics are one of the last redoubts of the "Corinthian spirit". To this day they are surrounded by a lot of mumbo-jumbo about idealism and sport as a means towards nebulous ends such as world peace. They're a sort of pseudo-religion, in which people are supposed to find spiritual significance. But now they can no longer claim to be amateur, they have to find other ways to demonstrate their moral purity. Drugs are a good way to do so, for they come with a ready-made moral terminology of their own: "clean", "drug-free", "honest" contrasting with "contaminated", "tainted" and "cheat". The taking of urine samples almost functions as a sort of inverse-communion: this is my piss, which is given unto you to prove that I am clean.

But that's not really what it's all about, is it? If we're being honest, the Olympics is mainly about national chauvinism and winning medals. Like any national chauvinist, I want Britain to win as many medals as possible. That's why I'm disappointed Dwain Chambers won't be in Beijing, winning for Britain.

6 comments:

IanG said...

Oh come on, don't you agree that rules are rules? This bye-law was in force before he started his career so he knew the rules. Why should there be an exception?

Also, his behaviour caused innocent parties in the relay race to lose as well. They must be pretty peeved when they think back to that event.

The Heresiarch said...

No argument there. He deserved his ban, and he served it. (Whether the total ban on all drugs of any description is over the top is another question entirely.) But why does British athletics have this extra ban, just for the Olympics? Why in this one case (though they tried, illegally, to extend it) must a ban be for life?

Edwin said...

Oh national sport has always been corrupt from ancient Olympia to the ongoing horrors of the new Olympic Games, and drugs have always been a part of it.

I remember a few years ago standing in the Jackie Husband stand at Firhill watching a crap game of football between the Jags and Dundee, while a few hundred yards away 200 or so pished Dundee supporters leered and gibbered at we Thistle fans - one of them even flashed at us - while Strathclyde's finest stared into space. Our lot responded with the customary Glaswegian repsonse to Dundonians, witty suggestions that they might buy some soap on the way home and so forth.

I recommend Joe Humphreys' excellent recent book Foul Play: What's wrong with Sport - some reviewers felt he overstated the case against, I think he gets it just right.

Competitive sport is toxic in every way, not just in terms of illegal substances - and, um I suppose that's why it was, is, and will always be popular.

David said...

Yes, he did take 'drugs'.
He paid his 'dues'.

I read/saw in yesterday's news the story of a young man who senselessly beat beat a young woman to death and was sentenced to a minimum of twelve years.

An athelete who takes 'drugs' is sentenceds to life.

Is there sense in this?

Waltz said...

This is another of those rather annoying situations where Britain takes the moral highground while everyone else takes a shortcut through the swamp below and they end up with all the medals and the glory.

I think the lifetime ban rule needs to go. We're one of only very few countries who even has such a rule, nevermind enforces it. A 4 year ban and maxed-up scrutiny of the offender thereafter is sufficient. Taking steroids is hardly in the same league as other "lifetime ban" activities such as paedophilia or killing your patients.

Paul Sturdee said...

Hi Heresiarch,
Your article on Dwain Chambers' failed attempt to get his life-long Olymbic ban lifted at the High Court has changed my view - thanks.
Prior to reading your article I was of the view that Chambers deserved to be banned for life, but you've convinced me that such a ban serves no purpose other than to further the religiosity of the 'anti-drugs' brigade and distract from the fact that the Games are these days all about money and national pride. The athletes are pawns (willing, it must be said) in an international game of competing national reputations and increasing commercial exploitation.
What is perhaps most dispiriting of all is that when this mind-set becomes entrenched it is very difficult to expose it for what it really is, such are the prejudices and hostilities to anyone who points out what is really going on. It will be even more difficult to change the system.
Thanks for your efforts to open eyes and minds!