Doping, Conspiracy Theories & The Benefits of Success

by | Apr 3, 2016

In a way, the doping story that hit the news headlines this morning is the perfect scandal for the age of conspiracy within which we now appear to live. It’s a simple, catch-all phrase that really requires analysis at a forensic level but will ultimately boil down to finger-jabbing and insinuation, and it’s perfect for a world that has simultaneously given up on facts whilst disregarding the evidence of its own eyes. A football team that isn’t the one that you prefer doing better than one might have expected? Well, now you have your answer. Just regurgitate the “d” word and sit back in your chair, smiling in self-satisfaction at the brilliance of your argument. Proof? In the future, where we’re headed, we don’t need no proof.

Very briefly, the bare bones of this story are that a private doctor based at a private clinic in London, Dr Mark Bonar, has been secretly filmed making various claims regarding sport, performance-enhancing drugs, and his involvement in the racket, including that he treated players from four different Premier League football clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Leicester City and Birmingham City – that, over the course of the last six years, he has treated more than one hundred and fifty sports people from the UK and abroad with banned substances such as erythropoietin (EPO), steroids and human growth hormone, and that he was introduced to several sportsmen by a former fitness coach from Chelsea FC who claimed that said he had suggested to a Premier League player that he should contact Bonar about steroid treatment.

There is, at the time of writing, no confirmation of which Premier League players may or may not be the subjects of Bonar’s claims. This suits the conspiratorial nature of current discourse on the subject for two reasons. Firstly, it allows for all the nudge, nudge, wink, wink insinuation that you like. Nobody who ever wins – and especially anybody who wins against the odds – will ever have done so “cleanly” again, apart from those play for the teams that those who make the accusations support, of course. Secondly, this suits the idea of a “grander conspiracy.” Any player comprehensively tested and found to be clean can be accused of having taken something to tidy up the state of his urine and/or blood. Any player not found to have been using has just got lucky with the timing of their test or is a part of a grander conspiracy aimed to protect that player (or, more likely, that player’s club), for whatever nefarious reasons.

The government’s reaction was predictable, for a government that recently had to put its anti-psychoactive substances bill on ice for a month because it was so badly worded that it was effectively legally unenforceable – it jerked its knee. The culture secretary, John Whittingdale, pledged to immediately launch an investigation into the allegations, stating that, “There is no room for complacency in the fight against doping and the government is already looking at whether existing legislation in this area goes far enough.” It’s a standard enough in an age during which the only politics that many people seem to be interested in are those of the soundbite, but what difference might this investigation actually make, from a material point of view? The use of some substances may improve performance in a variety of different ways, and the benefits of that improved performance have never been higher than they are now. Short of outlawing human nature, it seems unlikely that government intervention will prove to be much more than lip-service in the right direction.

Within a few hours of the allegations starting to become public knowledge, meanwhile, knives were sharpening for the career of Andrew Bonar. Bonar had told the Sunday Times that he had not breached General Medical Council regulations, but it became apparent that Bonar may not even hold a licence to practice medicine in the UK, with the GMC’s chief executive, Niall Dixon, stating that, “Dr Bonar does not currently hold a licence and is therefore unable to practise medicine in the UK. Any doctor without a licence who continues to carry out the privileged duties of a doctor is committing a serious breach of our guidance, and potentially a criminal offence.” If this is true, then we may well be justified in asking the question of how many other doctors without a licence to practice in this country are doing so, and whether that could be an equally – if not more – important question in a broad context, and a context that certainly outstrips the jurisdiction of John Whittingdale alone.

From Major Frank Buckley and the monkey gland treatment that briefly looked like becoming very fashionable indeed in the years leading up to the start of the Second World War through to Diego Maradona running boggle-eyed at a television camera at the 1994 World Cup finals, there has long been an understanding that there are at least some players who are happy to do whatever they need to do to their bodies in order to gain some sort of advantage over those who don’t. But the extent of it has long been disputed. On the one hand, Cristiano Ronaldo once stated that, “Football is one hundred per cent clean – it would have to be a massive conspiracy,” concerning claims that the game itself was covering up the extent of the issue. On the other, however, Marcel Desailly stated that, “Doping exists in football. That’s so obvious it would be stupid to deny it.” Assuming complete honesty on the part of those involved in the conversation – which we should, in the absence of anything to suggest the alternative – the only question that we can realistically ask is that of whether we can even agree on the extent of any such problems within the game, if those within it cannot agree about it with each other.

Investigations in other countries have thrown up troubling concerns, but these never seem to have been seen through to completion. The Italian newspaper Gazetto dello Sport considered the death of four Fiorentina players over the course of nineteen years to be suspicious because they could potentially be linked to drugs that were routinely issued to players during the 1970s. In France, meanwhile, Le Monde found, as part of an investigation into doping in cycling, extensive documentation relating to “seasonal preparation plans” at Real Madrid and Barcelona contained notations which hinted at such practices. Other allegations have been made in other countries, but where there has only ever been a drip, drip, drip of people being banned rather than the flood that may be required for the matter to be considered anything like a matter for serious investigation by the governing bodies. At present, it’s rather too easy to look at those who do get caught out and consider them to be exceptions rather than the rule.

This otherness may be a reason why we don’t tend to take doping as seriously as we might, but there are other likely reasons, as well. For one thing, it has been with us for a very long time – Major Frank Buckley’s monkey glands came in the scene almost eighty years ago and were not at the time banned by the FA, who insisted only on a circular being sent to all clubs to be posted on dressing room walls stating that whilst permitted, such injections were purely voluntary, and it’s even been suggested that the Wolves players were never injected with anything, but that the club was happy to let the rumour spread in order to give their team a psychological edge over opponents – and we may have become nonchalant on the subject because of the relative discrepancy between the extent to which it has ever been an issue in football compared to, say, cycling or athletics. It might also be suggested that, whilst in sports that require pure speed or power the benefits of performance-enhancing drugs is obvious, in professional football, a game in which other skills are essential beyond these, the extent to which drugs can assist a player is more doubtful, though they can still offer an advantage, of sorts.

For this particular story to be considered more seriously, more details will be necessary. The names of the players will eventually need to enter the public domain, along with details of what they may have taken and, in cases where there seems to be distinct evidence confirming some form of wrongdoing, an investigation into how any number of players can possibly all avoid detection. There may well be limits to the benefits of performance-enhancing drugs in football, but there may be no limit to the potential side-effects, and players who are under constant pressure from all sides to perform to the absolute peak of their ability need protection from this temptation for their own benefit as much as anybody else’s. There are doubtlessly several options available, should the governing bodies seek to cut down on the amount of performance-enhancing drug use in sport, but the most important might be those that never come to pass – stop telling people it’s so damn important, and stop giving so much money to the winners.

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