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.