PED’s (Performance Enhancing Drugs). Steroids. SARM’s (Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators). Drugs. Cheating. Testosterone. EPO. WADA. USADA. The list of catch-phrases and trigger-words goes on and on. It’s almost as long as the debate over their place in sport has been going on. For the sake of brevity though, we’ll skip the history lesson. This is already going to be a long one…buckle up sports-fans!

Before we get too far into this, let’s acknowledge that pretty much all PED’s and SARM’s were created with the express purpose of solving a medical problem or condition. They are all perfectly legal and safe if used for the right reason under the right supervision (a Doctor). These are not things created by mad scientists in dungeons with the express purpose of building super-freaks. Their “side-effects” on “normal” people have however been found to be pretty useful if you’re inclined to find any means necessary to improve your sporting performance *wink wink nudge nudge*.

This discussion is truly vast. In response to an invitation to share my thoughts on the matter, I’ve decided to approach it by giving my personal opinion across a few topics that break down the debate for me:

  • Sport and The Ideal of a Level Playing Field
  • PED Use Across Sports/Federations
  • PED Use and Honesty
  • PED Use and The Assassination of Character and Performance
  • PED Use and The Recreational Athlete
  • Why Do We Care?

Sport and the Ideal of “Fair Competition”

This is a great place to start. We all love sports of all kinds. Whether we are playing or spectating, sport is fun, healthy and great entertainment. We are all drawn to see and admire incredible talents and performances, and in some cases, we are drawn to work for and achieve those performances ourselves.

The interesting bit comes in when we start deciding winners and losers. Because that’s where the ethical question creeps in. Sporting bodies, athletes, and spectators are enamoured with the concept of a “Fair Playing Field For All”. They claim to want to see the best “natural” athletes on the world stage, who have risen to the top of the field off the back of their genetics and hard work.

I have a different take though. I think what they really want to say is that they want to expose those athletes who have an in-built superior genetic make-up for performance in any given pursuit, provided that athlete is on “their” team… Just ask Caster Semenya. Never taken a drug in her life. Never changed her body in any way shape or form. Perfectly built and suited for the 800m race. Motivated to train to a higher level than her competitors as a means of clawing her way out of poverty to a better life and glory for herself and her country. But is now “illegal” based on the same genetics that makes her better than anyone else at this time.

I digress, the point I am trying to make, is that sports are understandably occupied with trying to make sure that everyone competing is doing so from an equal (read: unaltered/unenhanced) PHYSIOLOGICAL starting point, so that we can see what the human body (read: some human bodies) are capable of, naturally.

But let’s get back to Caster for a second…what if there was a way to truly level the playing field, for the benefit of Whiny McFuckinNinthPlace from Not So Great Britain…?

Could we potentially raise everyone’s T-levels to the exact same number so that they could all have this same starting point? Could all Tour de France cyclists have access to EPO so they could start the race with the same Haemoglobin count?

Would that not be a more truly “equal” playing field?

Should we even open up the debate on the financial advantages one gains from being born in, or growing up in an Economically Developed Country? Surely beginning and nurturing your athletic career in a country or environment that has the capacity to support you financially from the second you were first identified as a talent, and more so once you are required to be self-sufficient (ie training through early adulthood) is an unfair advantage? Surely access to the best available equipment and support staff/structures is an advantage over someone without that access or support?

Don’t misappropriate what I’m saying as advocacy for PED use. What I am asking you to do though, is stop thinking that those phenomenal athletes you see and admire on TV are starting from a level playing field, or even trying to maintain one. And once you stop doing that, you should also stop thinking that we should be trying to hold people back from their natural gifts. Those gifts, advantages and differences should be celebrated. Surely?

PED Use Between Different Sports and Federations

It’s important for us as either spectators or participants to understand the boundaries within which a sport/organisation/federation exists in and is governed by.

What I mean is this, if you intend on playing CrossFit seriously and you know that there is in place, a Code of Conduct and drug testing policy, as well as a rule that says you will be penalised for using PED’s etc, then don’t use them. It’s simple. There is an onus on both administrators and competitors to uphold this ruling or standard.

It’s not that complicated really. You play by the rules, to the limit of the rules on the field, do so off the field as well. Provided you aren’t doing anything to break said rules, you’re in the clear.

As a spectator/commentator, this allows you the freedom to then be critical of both an athlete for contravening those rules, as well as of the organisation if they are found to be, or give the impression that they are selectively applying the standards. This just makes sense to me.

It’s important that we understand this small difference when we are invested in a sport emotionally. Ultimately, the rules will give you a choice as to how you choose to proceed. If you choose to break the rules and get caught, you must accept the consequences. If however, you choose to obey the rules and the organisation lets you down by not enforcing those rules as an athlete or spectator, then you must choose your reaction to that as well… Certain sports have “no testing” policies. If you choose to compete “clean”, that’s your choice. Don’t be bummed by someone who doesn’t…they are still technically playing by the rules.

Know the rules. Push the rules Don’t break the rules.

PED Use and The Assassination of Character and Performance

There is a tendency for naivety amongst sports fans. It’s not ignorance. It’s not possible or fair to criticise the sports fans for this naivety. After all, those who tune in religiously to watch their favourites and idols perform week in and week out is whom the business of the sports are built on, “the viewership”. They are part of the narrative that they love to follow. They just don’t know it yet.

The Tour de France was a niche market sport before a badass American cancer survivor came across the pond and whupped the Europeans at something they thought was theirs. There were great champions before him (Indurain, Lemond, Merckx to name a few), and there will be great champions after him. But none were more marketable than him. And the UCI (cyclings governing body) and the corporate world cashed in on the baddest man on 2 wheels. He was a freak. And he still hasn’t tested positive for a single banned substance. His teammates and competitors have, but he hasn’t. Yet he was the name they all wanted to kill.

Quite why Lance Armstrong’s character needed to be assassinated by the big dogs in USADA, I’m not sure. Quite why he needed to keep up the lie so long, I’m also not sure. But I certainly don’t think either party is squeaky clean in this one. The fact remains that doping in cycling is a relatively open secret. What has changed about that post The Armstrong Era, I’m not sure.

I’m also not sure why the public felt so offended by his not being innocent. He was playing by the rules that ran the game. And money ran that game. From the top to the bottom. Nobody was untainted. They can say what they will, but Lance’s 7 titles in a row are still his in my opinion. He was the best cyclist out there, playing by the exact same rules that all the others were. And he beat them all. The most valuable thing I think we need to take from this situation is that PED’s don’t necessarily undo the hard work, dedication and sacrifices an athlete has made in the name of performance. It may tarnish it to a degree. But we must still look at the situation objectively and in context though. But don’t for a second think you or I taking a lifetime of drugs is ever going to run fast enough to make Usain Bolt even give you a thought, let alone less than a 50m head-start. Elite athletes are elite. 

The losers in this situation are the audience who feel they have been lied to, and the athletes who are just doing what everyone else is doing. The governing bodies have the responsibility to keep the rules and enforce them. For all athletes… But then again, the governing bodies also have the responsibility to grow the sport and generate income from superstars… And hey, it’s not often you get guys with personalities and performances you can sell.

We as the public needs to acknowledge a few things:

  • Why do we accept it as “normal” when athletes are caught with recreational drugs in their system? (pretty much the whole English Premier League)
  • Why do we find it acceptable for our children and ourselves to idolise great talents who are also abusive and unfaithful to their spouses? (the AFL in Australia)
  • Why do we accept alcoholism and drinking as part of the “ritual” after a game? (you name your team sport here)
  • Why do we readily accept, and in fact encourage in many cases, PED’s in academic pursuit? (Ritalin etc)
  • Why do we believe that sexual abuse, alcoholism, recreational and prescription drug abuse in the workplace are all “par for the course”?
  • Why do we label athletes who use PED’s to enhance performance as “cheats”, but those who abuse drink/drug/beat wives are “only human”?

Why are all these things perfectly okay and escape analysis, retribution and assassination of character, but an athlete who is doing whatever it takes to win and keep earning that money (coz it’s a career folks, and it ONLY pays to be a winner) needs to be hauled over the coals and tarred and feathered for eternity?

We, the public really need to answer some questions here. I do believe the social accountability to many of these factors is getting better. But we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

We need to remember that Lance Armstrong never hurt anyone while “driving under the influence of EPO”, but there are a helluva lot of pro athletes who have done worse under the influence of alcohol. And none of their charities has done shit for kids with cancer…

I’m not saying PED’s are okay. Not at all, but before you destroy someone’s legacy, think. Surely you can no longer criticise “trying to win” but forgive “being a shit role model”?

PED Use and The Recreational Athlete

Probably the first sub-title that we can actually have an opinion as normal people here. Why, or should, that average bro or bint that’s klapping gym use PED’s?

The short answer is you shouldn’t. There are a number of reasons that you shouldn’t. Let’s go through a few shall we:

  • Having, using, selling, distributing steroids is illegal. The End.
  • You probably don’t need them. Really, you don’t.
  • You’re more likely to abuse them than use them.
  • This means you’ll probably encounter one of many health issues associated with the improper use of these substances.
  • They aren’t created for healthy people. They’re made for people with AIDS, cancer, burn victims, severe hormone deficiencies etc.
  • I repeat, they’re illegal without a script.

But if you’re already on that train, none of the above will stop you. But we can start to look into how we can best manage this situation because there are likely a few scenarios that have resulted in you “needing” to get on the sauce.

Scenario 1: You’re struggling to make the gains, even though you’ve been training hard

A very understandable chain of thought. You just want to see the results to all that hard work. The problem with this is that you are missing out on an invaluable life lesson in the process. Namely, if you want something really badly, you should focus every single controllable aspect in your life on achieving that outcome. You should not find a shortcut that is not a permanent solution. And the reality is that you probably have not been training long enough, hard enough, consistently enough, let alone even correctly to see the results you’re after. You are also probably not controlling your eating, sleeping and recovery nearly enough. But most of all, you are not learning patience, accountability and due process. You may not even have learnt to set realistic achievable goals or timelines.

Physical pursuits or goals are great vehicles for emotional and psychological development. So if we undermine the opportunities to learn and grow by using a shortcut (PED) to get there faster, we have probably missed out on a number of opportunities. Further to that, we are likely to have fallen into the trap of immediate gratification, and this is indeed a slippery slippery slope.

Scenario 2: People Will Only Respect/Like Me If I Look a Certain Way or Am a Certain Size/Strength

Much like Scenario 1, I get it. I actually think this way sometimes too. But I believe that placing value and identity of ourselves in something that can be taken away from us is inherently a dangerous way to approach self-worth and self-confidence.

Ultimately, once you start down this road you will always have at the back of your mind a nagging doubt. A “what if”. What if I get beaten by that smaller guy? What if I don’t get the numbers I’m supposed to at my next comp? What if nobody notices or admires me? The list goes on. But if we start down this road, the answer will always be to take more to try to fill a psychological deficiency. And that doesn’t have a good ending.

If you are a normal Bro and want to get on the juice to get big and strong, and you’ve decided this course 100%. Then do it, but do it for the right reason. Have that conversation honestly with yourself first. The reason can never be to fill insecurity because no shortcut ever solved the psychological challenge of “insecurity”. Taking shortcuts only makes it worse.

Scenario 3: The Other Guys at my gym must be doing it and I want to be better than them and win workouts so people think I’m a stud.

You know what; you’re a c5nt and the worst type of person ever. Your type has the least validity or understanding from me. You know why? Coz not only are you now cheating yourself of progress, but you are now cheating and lying about it, in order to beat people who are doing honest work in essentially a non-competitive environment in order to stroke your ego and gain praise from other people who are just having fun.

There’s a special place in Hell for people who feel the need to take drugs to be the best in recreational sports like CrossFit, Trail Running, OCR, mountain biking, etc etc. You get my point. Who the fuck are you? Seriously? I can’t hide my disgust at your kind, and I won’t. You people are scum.

Scenario 4: I need Hormone Replacement Therapy

You mean you followed the Doctor’s orders and got a script? Then you aren’t cheating. You are just trying to be normal. I wouldn’t push my luck though. This is not legal in every sport or competitive environment – know your rules.

For me, recreational PED use is a no-no. Bottom line is that there’s just no good enough reason to put yourself at that great a risk for no real reward. And the insecurities that might tempt us there should rather be seen as opportunities for psychological and emotional learning and growth so that we might be more rounded and psychologically resilient humans.

So, Why Do We Care?

We care because we love our sports and we love to create idols to worship. We care because we often admire supremely talented people and create an image in our mind of a person in the arena who meets our ideals of what a human should be. We build up an expectation of them to be more than is fair for them to try and meet.

We care because we willingly buy into the concept that the media around a sport has created of these Gods and Goddesses. We have placed them on a pedestal so high that we can no longer realistically consider their mortality.

We care because we need that distraction from the daily corruption and beaurocracy we experience at work, in politics and in our society in general. And we have placed Sports Stars in a moral, ethical and physical realm that supersedes what we normal plebs are capable of.

And that is all good. But we must never lose sight of the fact that these are also just people. People that are dealing with pressure that far exceeds what you or I know. Dealing with an invasion into their lives the likes of which we could never imagine. More often than not from an age we could not ever have dealt with. I mean can you consider Martini Hingis, Wimbledon Ladies champion and World #1 at age 16? Imagine giving an interview to the world’s press at 16. Imagine arriving at the pinnacle of a sport, at 16 years of age…just think about it.

We SHOULD care about it. For all the reasons we’ve spoken about already and more. We should care about the types of examples these athletes set our children.

But if we’re going to care that much about recreational activities, then maybe we should care about everything else in our lives too? Because if you’re the person that says corruption and kickbacks are just “how you do business”, then PED’s are “how you win” as far as I’m concerned.

Because winning (not how you win), is all that counts, right?