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Researcher Paul Dimeo thinks doping made modern sport what it is

Has doping made sport more interesting? Or even been the basis for the popularity and wealth of modern sport? That’s the theme of a Four Thought opinion piece by Paul Dimeo to be broadcast on Radio 4 at 8:45 this evening

Dimeo is a lecturer in sports studies at the University of Stirling and the author of A History of Drug Use in Sport: 1876-1976, so he’s well qualified to take a bigger-picture view of drugs in sport than the usual black-and-white angle of ‘dope bad, clean good’.

In an edited version of his talk on the BBC website, Dimeo points out the reality of the drugs arms race that led to Ben Johnson’s positive for the steroid stanozolol after winning the 100m sprint in the 1988 Olympics and the dominance and downfall of Lance Armstrong. Both athletes thought - rightly - that all their main rivals were doping. They felt they had to dope to level the playing field, and to win.

And the dubious ethics of that era had an unarguable result: fast, exciting racing, superhuman performances.

That leads Dimeo to ask a question often ignored or skirted round in discussion of doping: “What if doping has done something good for sport? What if, in fact, doping has helped make sport what it is today?”

“The best example is the Olympics,” he writes, “which was in crisis for most of the post-war period. Essentially it is a series of minority interest sports brought together with reference to the historical idealism of international peace and co-operation. In theory it was entirely amateur and the big professional sports like football, cycling, tennis, golf and American football were not represented. In the words of Jim Mills Sr, it was little more than PE for grown-ups.

“Few countries wanted to host the event, there was little sponsorship money and, beset by boycotts, the movement nearly collapsed. However, what made the Olympics interesting through the 1960s, 70s and 80s - breathed life into the whole affair - was the Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union, East Germany and the US and their respective allies.

“This rivalry created meaning and a culture of excellence. Records were regularly broken in almost all disciplines. Great performances were admired while ongoing rivalries - individual and national - made for great stories. But we know now that many of the Olympic medal winners from those countries in these decades were on steroids. The growing popularity and media coverage of the Olympics was based upon excellence fuelled by steroids.”

There’s a lot more to Dimeo’s argument, but it implies something we hope will be explored in the full program: if doping is the goose that laid sport’s golden egg, maybe the reason why sport’s governing bodies have been historically so lousy at catching dopers is that they’re actually really not trying? Why risk killing the goose?

Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

26 comments

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sm [376 posts] 2 years ago
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He is confusing a great performance with doping. Great performances were responsible. Great performances are possible without doping. Therefore, no, doping is and was not good for the sport. Just look at the damage Lance and all other dopers do and did to the sport they allegedly loved.

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Doper [69 posts] 2 years ago
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What a waste of time that was.

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John Stevenson [250 posts] 2 years ago
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I don't think he's confusing great performances and doping. There's a causal link.

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Charles_Hunter [142 posts] 2 years ago
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This from the article doesn't make sense, there would have been rivalry without everyone being on drugs!

“Few countries wanted to host the event, there was little sponsorship money and, beset by boycotts, the movement nearly collapsed. However, what made the Olympics interesting through the 1960s, 70s and 80s - breathed life into the whole affair - was the Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union, East Germany and the US and their respective allies.

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imaca [72 posts] 2 years ago
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Only works with deception.
Yes, most mainstream sports make token efforts to catch drug cheats because they see the negative impact this has had on sports like athletics and cycling. In the minds of most of the public, no drug cheats caught = no cheating. If sports were to actually admit drug use takes place and legitimize drug taking, public interest might take a nose dive. How many people do you know who think cycling is meaningless because everyone takes drugs? Cycling is a laughing stock.
The dark side of all this is health effects. Steroid and HGH use is rampant among teens in, for example, South Africa, because they see their rugby playing mates getting bigger, and want to match them. Here in NZ I know of teens who have done the same. Thanks largely to rugby, being big is cool. Who knows what price these kids will be paying in 30 or 40 years?

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farrell [1950 posts] 2 years ago
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Perhaps this should be titled:

"Paul Dimeo - Is rehashing an idea already done, and done much better, in a dumbed down way to attract controversy and attention from the masses a good way of boosting my otherwise unnoteworthy career"?

University of Stirling? Sling it.

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kaska [12 posts] 2 years ago
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Some comments seem a little harsh. From this article (I haven't seen the full talk) he doesn't seem to be saying that doping is desirable or "good", but acknowledging that (dishonestly) increasing physical capabilities can lead to improved sporting performances. Often this side of the debate is omitted (not surprisingly given the responses when someone articulates it).

Of course it's possible to have rivalry without doping, but if the testing wasn't adequate then it's not that surprising that people (and regimes) decided to cheat, and there's no reason that the innocent (naive?) spectators shouldn't have been enthralled by the results. The goal now is to maintain the rivalries and the competition but without the drugs, which will only happen if the chances and consequences of getting caught greatly outweigh the benefits of getting away with it.

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drheaton [3318 posts] 2 years ago
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sm wrote:

He is confusing a great performance with doping. Great performances were responsible. Great performances are possible without doping. Therefore, no, doping is and was not good for the sport. Just look at the damage Lance and all other dopers do and did to the sport they allegedly loved.

Sorry but you can't just say 'Armstrong damanged cycling' because that's not the full picture.

Armstrong was for many people the reason they got into watching cycling on TV, he helped expand cycling across the english speaking world (and particularly America) and laid the foundations for the expansion in popularity since.

Yes, he was dishonest and a bully and everything else but the fact is, watching him racing is why I follow pro road cycling now. Without watching the exciting turn of the century Tour de France races with Armstrong destroying the likes of Ulrich and Basso I would probably not follow the sport now.

He was many things but just stating the negatives will only ever tell half of the story and I think this is something often overlooked by those fighting doping. In the end doping will kill sport because it makes the contest fake and people (fans) are waking up to this but I would agree that sport has benefitted from doping in many ways.

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Colin Peyresourde [1695 posts] 2 years ago
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Some good comments here. The problem with drugs in sports is that it promotes a nuclear arms race of taking ever more powerful drugs with who knows what effects.

Try telling the families of the amateur cyclists who died in their sleep from EPO use that doping has a positive effect? imaca above is right, young men and women emulate their stars and heroes, and usually without the access to proper health care that professional athletes do.

The perception is that drug taking is in the minority, and that the cheats get caught because there is 'a test'. The actuality is that the testing is ineffectual, and doping is fairly widespread.

Drug fuelled performances have made sport more exciting, because it has allowed the bar to be moved beyond what people deem possible and so it is surprising when Armstrong powers up a mountain at a speed some would find astonishing on a flat. But it is the lie that is inherent in this which gives it the air of popularity that keeps the sport afloat. While it is exciting, and astonishing it robs people of what can be achieved naturally, and the dominance it gives athletes like Armstrong actually rob the audience of the reality and grit of true rivalry.

People love to back a winner and doping helps that, but it destroys the hopes for the underdog. It reduces true competition. Virtually all of the best battles and competitions in athletics can be made exciting without drugs, but will we ever be able to go to a world where we are drug free? I doubt it. Perhaps the only way to level it is to be honest about it, and put limits on the doping (like the 50% hematocrit did once upon a time).

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shay cycles [321 posts] 2 years ago
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I agree there are good comments here and generally made in a clear and sensible manner which is great for debate and I tend to believe that sensible debate is a good thing.

One question that I often consider is what do we mean by "good for the sport"?

Is it increased numbers of followers?
Is it more and bigger top level teams?
Is it more money into the sport?
Is it more time on mainstream television?
Is it bigger numbers taking part?
Is it more spectacular and amazing feats by the competitors?

I'd suggest that there are indeed valid arguments that doping, and in particular Lance Armstrong's contribution, have contributed significantly to the above.

But is "good for the sport" is actually about:

Young people getting into healthy competitive activity?
A sport that benefits the health and well being of the participants?
Sensible amounts of money into the sport, (with the consequential lower pressure to cheat)?
A perception among competitors that the playing field is level?
A perception among competitors that they don't need to risk their health and their lives to succeed?
A chance for the underdog to sometimes come out on top?
A belief among followers that what they've seen is "real"?

If the answer to these is yes then doping is clearly not good for the sport.

My own fear is that we've gone so far over the last 100+ years that we can't fully escape the doping culture that has developed. Remember that the first doping related death in cycling occurred at least 117 years ago, more than 60 years before it was banned!

I know where I stand on this, especially having stopped competitive cycling due to a medical need to take prohibited substances, but I fully understand that there are many views on doping.

It would be nice if the UCI were at least able to form and publish a view of what it might consider to be "for the good of the sport" - a challenge for Mr. Cookson perhaps.

In 100+ years from now I expect the debate to still be rumbling on.

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arfa [734 posts] 2 years ago
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One argument I have heard put forward is to have a doped and clean version of events - not one I favour but you can see where it is coming from !
In my view banned substances are banned for a good reason and a cheat is a cheat. With cycling, the omerta has to be broken and backs turned on those who cheat thereafter.
Armstrong was compelling viewing in his time because of his dominance and consistency. Now it is out in the open, who cares about that era ? Not me as the whole spectacle was a sham. I seem to recall at the depths of the doping scandals crowds fell in number (I recall the guy running alongside the peloton in a syringe suit & not many others roadside). Think of the guys who fell away from the sport because they wouldn't cheat (something Millar acknowledged in his book ). So no, cheating doesn't boost the sport but it risks and ruins lives unnecessarily.
What brought cycling back to the popular imagination in my opinion was the idea that it could be done clean with the efforts of certain teams (new heroes to cheer on).

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Colin Peyresourde [1695 posts] 2 years ago
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Unfortunately what we are faced with is the winner is usually the biggest cheat. What seems unbelievable is so for a reason - that person found a new way to boost their performance. Some will accuse me of being terribly cynical - well most drugs cheat are too, if we took their word for it they'd get away with it.

Doping in some respects (ignoring the health risks and the collateral damage of those emulating their heroes), if it were made clear and open, is not a problem and might give rise to a level playing field to begin with. But what seems to happen is that someone finds some a new drug, a new way of avoiding tests and sometimes the drug has a stronger effect. Nature is not a level playing field, but as a base unit it really is a good starting point for finding out the best of humanity.

You have to think with all that we know about training and diet why individuals 'come out of nowhere' to take the sport by storm. Or that 'they have a new training technique'. As mentioned, there is a wide scope of possibility for humanity, but genetic outliers will reach the top. But the feasibility of performances is very dubious (look at the way in which the 100m record has suddenly tumbled, and old records are now humdrum, even those by known doped athletes). As Judge Judy says "if it's too good to be true, it probably is!"

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kcr [107 posts] 2 years ago
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Dimeo's arguments are confused and have huge problems, which he simply doesn't address.

Quote:

The discussion around sport - from newspaper headlines to in-depth biographies - has benefited greatly from drugs. The public love stories where drugs make sports stars seem like human beings - tragically flawed.

This is just nonsense. Endemic drug use just breeds cynicism and devalues genuine sporting performance. There's been a noticeable lack of public celebration over Chris Horner's Vuelta win. I think that's because most people just can't take it seriously.

Quote:

When I look back at Ben Johnson and at others - Marion Jones, Michael Rasmussen, David Millar, Marita Koch and so many more - I see people driven by a desire to win, for themselves and their families, and I can't bring myself to see anything wrong in that.

Take the argument to it's logical conclsion; why stop with drugs? Would it be acceptable if Lance Armstrong had won the Tour de France by pushing his rivals into a ditch? How about equipping the riders with knives, or guns? I'm sure it would make the racing more exciting, but would it be acceptable, and if not, why not? Is it acceptable to cheat using drugs (in Dimeo's view) because that's an "invisible" transgression?

This is not just about pro sport. The same rules apply to everyone. I enjoy competitive cycling, and I don't want to be in a position where I have to take potentially dangerous drugs to compete in my sport.

Dimeo's analysis just seems weak and poorly thought out.

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drheaton [3318 posts] 2 years ago
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shay cycles wrote:

I agree there are good comments here and generally made in a clear and sensible manner which is great for debate and I tend to believe that sensible debate is a good thing.

One question that I often consider is what do we mean by "good for the sport"?

Is it increased numbers of followers?
Is it more and bigger top level teams?
Is it more money into the sport?
Is it more time on mainstream television?
Is it bigger numbers taking part?
Is it more spectacular and amazing feats by the competitors?

I'd suggest that there are indeed valid arguments that doping, and in particular Lance Armstrong's contribution, have contributed significantly to the above.

But is "good for the sport" is actually about:

Young people getting into healthy competitive activity?
A sport that benefits the health and well being of the participants?
Sensible amounts of money into the sport, (with the consequential lower pressure to cheat)?
A perception among competitors that the playing field is level?
A perception among competitors that they don't need to risk their health and their lives to succeed?
A chance for the underdog to sometimes come out on top?
A belief among followers that what they've seen is "real"?

If the answer to these is yes then doping is clearly not good for the sport.

My own fear is that we've gone so far over the last 100+ years that we can't fully escape the doping culture that has developed. Remember that the first doping related death in cycling occurred at least 117 years ago, more than 60 years before it was banned!

I know where I stand on this, especially having stopped competitive cycling due to a medical need to take prohibited substances, but I fully understand that there are many views on doping.

It would be nice if the UCI were at least able to form and publish a view of what it might consider to be "for the good of the sport" - a challenge for Mr. Cookson perhaps.

In 100+ years from now I expect the debate to still be rumbling on.

You make some really good points.

I'd say that doping has been good for 'professional sport' but not for 'amateur sport'.

Pro sport such as cycling, athletics and football benefit from greater spectacle, it increases viewing figures which increases sponsorship and TV money, it makes a sport more financially viable and makes it's participants richer. Doping has clearly helped some of these sports in a professional sense and in a sense of broadening their appeal to fans.

Amateur sport though suffers from doping and I agree there is no real upside. When young participants feel they need to dope in order to get to the pro level then people only suffer.

I see cycling as being at the forefront of the fight on doping in a number of ways. Mainly, cycling more than any other sport has been suffering from the "is it real?" problem. Fans want to see exciting but real racing and that means doping needs to go, in other sports (tennis for example) there's still a belief from fans that it's clean and therefore there is no problem. Every other sport will catch up eventually. Once a top tennis player such as Nadal or Djokovic or a footballer of the standing of Messi is caught doping all of a sudden the tide of opinion will turn and people will be following cycling's lead.

The only comfort I get from all this is that in theory, cycling will be the first clean sport and while the rest are sorting themselves out cycling will be there as a shining example.

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farrell [1950 posts] 2 years ago
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drheaton wrote:

A footballer of the standing of Messi is caught doping all of a sudden the tide of opinion will turn and people will be following cycling's lead.

Messi got to where he is by doping, or at least what I would consider doping.

We would frown on riders using human growth hormones, but football accepts Messi using them and doesn't see an issue with it.

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Aapje [242 posts] 2 years ago
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The biggest flaw with this argument is the idea that people going faster is more exciting. This may be true in dumb competitions like the 100m sprint that are so boring that people only care about records being broken. However, for cycling only relative differences and unpredictability are relevant. It's not any more exciting for riders to go up a mountain at 15 km/h or 20 km/h. What's exciting is the differences between riders.

It's fun if riders can have exceptionally good or poor days. What is exciting is when the GC competitors have to work together to distance a rival. Doping reduces the variability and allows single doped teams to control a race, making it very boring. Just look at how boring the Lance's wins were, with his team just controlling most of the race. The Sky train is just as boring.

The attention LA got had very little to do with exciting racing, but more with his story, nationalist feelings in the US and other factors. Not exciting racing.

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drheaton [3318 posts] 2 years ago
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farrell wrote:
drheaton wrote:

A footballer of the standing of Messi is caught doping all of a sudden the tide of opinion will turn and people will be following cycling's lead.

Messi got to where he is by doping, or at least what I would consider doping.

We would frown on riders using human growth hormones, but football accepts Messi using them and doesn't see an issue with it.

Football also turns a blind eye to footballers (can't remember who) announcing on twitter that they feel great after having been to Switzerland to have their 'blood refreshed'...

Rules are rules for everyone and it does piss me off that cycling gets so much shit for being a 'dirty sport' purely because they're the only one to systematically catch those doping.

It'll come in time though. Stories like the Cilic ban for Wimbledon will start to be broken more often and eventually public opinion will turn against other sports to the point where they step up their fight on doping.

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Pitstone Peddler [104 posts] 2 years ago
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drheaton wrote:
farrell wrote:
drheaton wrote:

A footballer of the standing of Messi is caught doping all of a sudden the tide of opinion will turn and people will be following cycling's lead.

Messi got to where he is by doping, or at least what I would consider doping.

We would frown on riders using human growth hormones, but football accepts Messi using them and doesn't see an issue with it.

Football also turns a blind eye to footballers (can't remember who) announcing on twitter that they feel great after having been to Switzerland to have their 'blood refreshed'...

I think that was Ronaldo, I also recall another big name having a blood transfusion to aide the repair of a bruise.

The ultimate speeds/results of sport certainly increased, no-one will ever know if that helped make great performances. I dopnt think people would find the 100mts dash very exciting to watch if all racers ran 11 seconds dead. Theyw ould far rather watch a cheat run 9.x

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dullard [140 posts] 2 years ago
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"Dimeo points out the reality of the drugs arms race that led to Ben Johnson’s positive for the steroid stanozolol after winning the 100m sprint in the 1988 Olympics and the dominance and downfall of Lance Armstrong. Both athletes thought - rightly - that all their main rivals were doping. They felt they had to dope to level the playing field, and to win."

All of their main doped rivals were, of course, doping, but not ALL of their rivals. Many chose not to and were denied the opportunity to show what they were naturally capable of because the synthetics were miles ahead. Armstrong appears, with the cooperation and support of many in US cycling and industry and cycling governing bodies, to have gone out with the intention of doping better than anybody else and so to win. The playing field when you start to manipulate the body so fundamentally is never level, so you get to the stage when you have people performing like robots (Rasmussen and Contador in 2007 is a case in point). Armstrong's great advantage lay in having a hugely better doping programme than anybody else. Is sport better when it's down to having a bigger and better doping programme than your opponent? I don't think so. I don't think it's even sport. We, the viewing public, need belief that what top athletes are doing has a link to us so we can relate to it and how hard it is, that's how their performances inspire awe. Otherwise, it's meaningless.

Interesting comments about Messi; if anybody has looked on another road.cc string at the Armstrong Lie film press conference, a comment is made about how other sports are on the precipice of being exposed as riddled with drugs as cycling recently has. There's no doubt that the performances of some high-intensity football teams - Barcelona and Spain the most high profile - look artificial as do those of some tennis players, male and female.

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sm [376 posts] 2 years ago
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You make some good points doc, and yes I can't be so generalist as to say Lance was all bad for the sport. As you say, maybe he inspired many to get into the sport:

drheaton wrote:

Without watching the exciting turn of the century Tour de France races with Armstrong destroying the likes of Ulrich and Basso I would probably not follow the sport now.

However, for everyone who tuned in for the above, I'm sure there's just as many people who have been turned off by the sport due to its doping. And who's to say that given a level playing field in your era, then there wouldn't haven't been some equally exciting races? You can't say that without drugs there would never be exciting races?

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Colin Peyresourde [1695 posts] 2 years ago
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What I find interesting here is that there is a much deeper understanding of the doping problem on this thread, as opposed to the debates of Chris Horner's Vuelta victory.

So much of what we see with sport now is artifice. Drugs seemed to have wormed their way into all aspects. It is probably most laughable in the US where their Sports Stars are freakish by any stretch of the imagination. In fact it seems likely that to compete at the top end you need to dope from a young age, which is sad. Look to at how rugby players have changed. I know that the game only recently became professional, but the average size, weight and shape of every player on the pitch has changed dramatically.

I think the predominance of steroids in American sport has even influenced their film making and what they deem as heroic (Schwarzenegger and Stallone). One problem the US army has is that they have soldiers who have bulked up so much on steroids they can barely do manuoeuvres efficiently. Feeding that biomass is not easy in the field either.

Thankfully our screens are no longer filled with steroidal jerks like they once were, but it does make you think about the subconscious effect of it all. We like to make heroes of our athletes, we like them to be super human, and making them ordinary means that we feel we can all have a pop. Part of the commercialisation of sport has predicated this as determining factor - the bigger the gap between what the average person can do and their sports heroes the more the sport can market itself.

At the moment there is not enough of an outside influence on sports like football and tennis to lead to a big drugs bust. Look at the way Fuentes was covered up. That would destroy La Liga, the biggest football franchise. As such nothing is being done to change that and so an outside influence will no doubt be required. I think this is why WADA has been set up, but there is so much politics to play that it may be some time.

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Aapje [242 posts] 2 years ago
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Pitstone Peddler wrote:

I don't think people would find the 100mts dash very exciting to watch if all racers ran 11 seconds dead. They would far rather watch a cheat run 9.x

In a 100% clean sport, people would just be as excited for a winning time of 11 secs, because they wouldn't know that 9.x was possible. Your argument that all racers would run the same time of 11 secs is just silly. Without doping, there are exceptional athletes too, who will run faster than others.

Of course, if everyone would stop doping today, far fewer records would be broken and some might find that less exciting. However, it is just as valid to blame dopers of the past for that, rather than ask for more doping today. The extreme doping in East-Germany has made for some impossible records, while destroying the bodies of some athletes involved. Legalizing doping would just turn sports into a challenge of who is willing to destroy their bodies more.

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Colin Peyresourde [1695 posts] 2 years ago
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Aapje - I think he is arguing that if we stopped doping that people would run just 11 secs sprints, and so there would be a regression of sorts, which people would not be interested in. Not that if doping never existed.

I think you are being a bit too literal.

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paulr [7 posts] 2 years ago
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There was a very interesting article in the Economist a few months ago based on game theory and how we are all complicit from fans, through competitors to governing bodies.

I don't think this is behind a firewall but I may have been logged in inadvertently. If so, let me know and I'll post the text. Well worth a read.

http://tinyurl.com/msnge8y

Paul.

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Colin Peyresourde [1695 posts] 2 years ago
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paulr wrote:

There was a very interesting article in the Economist a few months ago based on game theory and how we are all complicit from fans, through competitors to governing bodies.

I don't think this is behind a firewall but I may have been logged in inadvertently. If so, let me know and I'll post the text. Well worth a read.

http://tinyurl.com/msnge8y

Paul.

Pure twat waffle for the situation. Fair enough they've come up with mathematical proof, but having studied economics this sort of stuff did not impress me.

Basically they've worked backwards to come up with reality. I don't think anyone starts out wanting to dope, but if they suspect others are doping (and the doping is effective), and getting away with it, sooner or later that athlete will dope or leave the sport. You don't need a degree to realise this.

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paulr [7 posts] 2 years ago
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That's not a fair summary of the article. It's not even a good summary of the prisoners' dilemma.