Doping is widely condemned as a scourge on cycling, and indeed on sport more generally, but Paul Dimeo has proposed a more nuanced view of the effect doping has had on sport.
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’.
Dimeo postulates that doping might even have done something good for sport, that it might have helped sport become what it is today.
“The best example is the Olympics,” Dimeo writes, “which was in crisis for most of the post-war period. 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.”
“The writer Umberto Eco once argued that sport isn’t really about the actual event – that’s over quickly, few people participate and only a relatively small number will be there to see it in real life. Instead, Eco wrote, sport is about reporting an event, then discussing the reporting of the event, then discussing the discussion. And drugs have certainly enhanced the discussion as much as they have enhanced the athletes. 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.”
“But it goes beyond that. Anti-doping is a moral and controlling force which aims to protect the purity of sport, but like all moral forces runs up against human nature – in this case athletes’ will to win, and their occasional lapses in concentration.
“Anti-doping would not exist without doping as its nemesis – the two are locked together, they need each other. It is a war in which each side defines the parameters of the other. And this has created a real sense of fascination among sports fans, and even those not normally interested in sport.”
One big question remains though: 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?