Inside the Hidden World of the Tour De France: Doping, Cover-Ups and Winning at All Costs
I was one of those Olympics gloomsters who, as Boris Johnson gleefully pointed out when the Games had finished, were scattered and routed by the rip-roaring success of London 2012. I assumed something would go wrong; everything went right. I thought people would complain about the cost; no one seems to have begrudged a penny. It was a triumph: I accept that now. But in one respect I still refuse to buy it. Before the Olympics began there were fears that the event would be overshadowed by a drugs scandal or by the steady drip-drip of multiple failed drugs tests. In the end, although a few athletes were caught (including the winner of the gold in the women’s shot put and an American judo competitor who blamed his positive marijuana test on eating the wrong cakes), the Games were more or less drugs-free. There were some dark rumours early on about the Chinese teenage swimming sensation Ye Shiwen, but she passed her tests and kept her medals; Colin Moynihan, the chairman of the British Olympic Association, declared that she was a natural talent and told the doubters to shut up. These Games were ‘clean’, which was a big part of the success story. That’s what makes me suspicious. In an event on this scale, where the stakes are so high for competitors and organisers alike, an absence of failed drugs tests does not prove no one is cheating. More likely it indicates that no one is really looking.
When it comes to drugs in sport, what matters is how the incentives are aligned: the incentives of the people who might take them and the incentives of the people who might stop them. In some sports the temptations for the athletes are relatively slight. Premier League footballers might mess around more than they should with recreational drugs; but the use of performance-enhancing drugs is unlikely to be commonplace, since the skills required at the highest level in football are so various. The clearest evidence for this is the wide variety of body shapes you see in the top leagues. The world’s best player, Lionel Messi, did take growth hormones as a child to compensate for a height deficiency. Without them he would not have grown much above 4’7″; even now he is only a dumpy 5’7″. He is also amazingly durable (he has played the full ninety minutes in his last hundred appearances for Barcelona), which can be an effect of steroid use. But you don’t get to be like Messi by taking steroids: no one sets out to be a dumpy 5’7″. In American football, by contrast, steroid abuse is almost certainly widespread. Here, being the right shape - big and strong - and having the ability to recover quickly from injuries are the primary requirements in many positions. NFL players do not often fail drugs tests, but that does not mean the sport is clean. It means the people who run the sport are not overconcerned about the players’ underlying health: it would be bad for business. The clearest evidence for this is the brain damage we know is caused to American footballers by the repeated head trauma they undergo, which the helmets they wear do little to protect them from. The people who run the sport have done next to nothing about that either.