The Cheating Edge: Doping and Sports

It is time for an honest conversation on the issue of doping in sport. For too long there has been a gulf between reality and public perception when it comes to performance enhancing drugs and their widespread use. Surely now enough is enough.

In a past life – from the age of sixteen through to my early twenties – my passion in life was lifting weights. I competed in a number of competitions and like the majority of my peers at the time took steroids. In the gym culture I was part of in the 1980s steroids and steroid use was rife. Indeed it was almost the norm, as normal as brushing your teeth to those involved.

The reason I volunteer this information is because drug use in elite-level sport has come into sharp focus again. The world athletics body – the IAAF – was recently forced to deny accusations that appeared in the British media that it had suppressed the findings of a study during which a third of the world’s top athletes admitted “violating anti-doping rules.”

Prior to that popular British distance runner and Olympic champion Mo Farah had come under a cloud over allegations that his coach, Alberto Salazar, had advised various athletes under his tutelage at the Nike Oregon Project athletics group to take PEDs. And, of course, by now the entire world is familiar with the story of Lance Armstrong, the seven time Tour de France champion who was stripped of his titles when it came to light that he’d been doping throughout his career.

Now boxing has come under the doping spotlight after an explosive article by Muhammad Ali biographer Thomas Hauser for the American sports news website SB Nation. In the piece – Can Boxing Trust USADA? – Hauser reveals that after Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquaio weighed-in on the day before their long anticipated fight back back in May, agents from the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) arrived unannounced at Floyd Mayweather’s Las Vegas home to conduct a random drug test on the undefeated world champion.

In the process they found evidence of an IV having been administered to the fighter, which Mayweather’s team explained had been in the form of saline and multivitamins to combat the effects of dehydration. The use of these substances is not prohibited. However the use of IV to administer them is. Why? Because introducing them directly into the bloodstream can and does mask the presence of other substances that might be in an athlete’s system, such as performance enhancing drugs, which are illegal.

As I say, there exists a massive gulf between the reality of doping in sports and public perception. It is my contention, based on nothing more than personal experience and knowledge of the huge stress placed on the body by intense competitive level training and the body’s natural ability to recover from such training, that the use of doping in sport is ubiquitous and widespread – to the point where I find it difficult to believe that any top athlete has never used them at least at some point in his or her career. And given the stakes involved nowadays – prize money, endorsements, advertising contracts – who can blame them?

Floyd Mayweather is 38-years old. He has just emerged victorious from his forty-ninth and, if he is to be believed, last fight against Andre Berto in Las Vegas as an athlete in peak physical condition, evincing no evidence of physical decline. His skill level is unquestioned. As an exemplar of the sweet science – boxing as the art of hitting and not getting hit – he is unsurpassed. However getting himself into the kind of condition he needed to be in when he entered the ring for his 49th fight entailed pushing and punishing himself to an extraordinary degree over the past two months and more of yet another grueling training camp.

Considering that the ability to recover from the two or even three training sessions a day involved in such a training camp, including sparring, diminishes significantly with age – due to the fact that a male’s natural levels of testosterone and growth hormone go into sharp decline – the questions surrounding Mayweather raised by Thomas Hauser in his article are impossible to resist.

Similarly, during his career Manny Pacquaio went up nine weight divisions in just seven years while carrying his speed and power with him. Then we have Mexico’s Juan Manuel Marquez. The difference between the small and smooth 2009 Marquez, schooled by Floyd Mayweather over 12 rounds when they fought, and the 2013 ripped and muscular Marquez who brutally knocked out Pacquaio, cannot be explained by protein shakes alone. It just cannot.

Various boxers have tested positive for banned substances over the years, the likes of James Toney, Antonio Tarver, Roy Jones, Fernando Vargas, and many others.

The problem, as Hauser points out, is that “the prevailing ethic seems to be, ‘If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.’ In a clean world, fighters don’t get older, heavier, and faster at the same time. But that’s what’s happening in boxing. Fighters are reconfiguring their bodies and, in some instances, look like totally different physical beings. Improved performances at an advanced age are becoming common. Fighters at age 35 are outperforming what they could do when they were thirty. In some instances, fighters are starting to perform at an elite level at an age when they would normally be expected to be on a downward slide.”

Professional boxing in the US suffers from the lack of a national governing body with clear and transparent rules and regulations. Instead it is run on a state-by-state basis under the rubric of state athletic commissions. This opens it up to the kind of mismanagement bordering on corruption that has come to characterize it over decades. Add to this the multiplicity of sanctioning bodies, each with its own version of the world title in every weight division, and you have a situation that is positively anarchic.

On one level it is sad that Mayweather’s legacy could be tarnished by these revelations, and at this stage it is important to stress there is no evidence that he has ever used banned substances. However it is even sadder that we, the fans, demand from our top athletes and champions ever more speed, power, and endurance without realizing what is involved in them being able to deliver it.

The drive for success that compels a man like Floyd Mayweather to put his body through the hell he has for two decades is rooted in inordinate emphasis on individual success, competition, status, fame, and fortune that is the driving force behind the so-called the American Dream.

That said, it is not only in America where young men and women are driven to succeed and rise from the herd. For this they cannot and should not be blamed. What is unforgiveable is the hypocrisy involved in building up athletes as role models and paragons of virtue when in truth the only ethos that matters in the world of professional and elite sport is winning at all cost.

John Wight is the author of a politically incorrect and irreverent Hollywood memoir – Dreams That Die – published by Zero Books. He’s also written five novels, which are available as Kindle eBooks. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnWight1

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