Drug curse calls for drastic punishments

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 January, 1998, 12:00am

THERE is no merit, no glory and there should be no satisfaction in winning at any form of sport by cheating.

This is not a simple and idealistic viewpoint. When a sports-person is discovered cheating it not only destroys the individual's career but also sullies the reputation of his or her country.

But to describe drugs as the curse of modern sport is wrong in the same way that the often wrongly-quoted phrase 'money is the root of all evil' is not correct.

'Love of money' can certainly lead too many people down the wrong path.

Likewise, it is illicit drug-taking, not drugs, that taint too much of our international sport.

It was meant to be a week of shining endeavour in the pool at Perth but, for China and, to an extent, the sport itself, it turned out to be a nightmare from the very start.

There can be no excuses and the early bleatings from Beijing that the mistakes made by certain swimmers do not detract from all, fell largely on deaf ears. Too often the finger of suspicion has pointed at the country's swimmers and athletes.

Thankfully, at the end of the week Minister of Sports, Wu Shaozu, was accepting the heavy blow to the country's sporting image and stating that some people, rather than joining the fight against doping, tried to exploit the regulations.

How can any excuses ever be made for a swimmer who secretes vials of human growth hormone in a flask? Suggestions that there were enough secreted to induce better performances in more than one swimmer may well be accurate.

When an out-of-session drugs test nobbled four more Chinese swimmers, any gold won in Perth was tarnished beyond redemption. On top of this came the distinctly below-par performances of other Chinese swimmers who, not so long ago, were world-beaters. Rightly or wrongly, immediate and obvious conclusions were drawn.

The desperate hunt for recognition and glory - sullied as it ultimately might be in the eyes of most right-thinking sports fans - pays no heed to the future effects on the lives of those seeking short-term satisfaction.

There are stories now emanating from the former East Germany of athletes who were on anabolic steroids from a young age and are now crippled with muscular deficiencies. It is a high price to pay, particularly when the world at large remains sceptical about the merits of those victories achieved by sports-persons from countries where sport is state-backed and largely funded.

But it does happen elsewhere. The Irish triple gold medallist at the Atlanta Olympic Games, Michelle Smith, received a heroine's welcome in Dublin but was met with complete disbelief in America.

It was just not possible for a woman in her mid-20s to swim such times when she had not recorded them before. American television commentators, in particular, went close to breaching the laws of libel although their stance would have been influenced by national disappointment at the performance of their own swimmers against Smith.

There are, of course, drugs and drugs. Football players and others in demanding team sports will play with pain-killing injections and other masking devices which should not, in strict terms, be permitted. Again the long-term effects may not be pleasant.

Illegal, performance-enhancing drug-taking, however, is much more prevalent in individual events and it is difficult to eradicate - particularly so if team coaches endorse the practice.

Sadly, it is usually in the pursuit of Olympic glory that the bounds of legality are so often crossed. The drug-taking and massive commercial exploitation of the modern Olympiads make them a mockery of the concepts of their founder, Baron de Coubertin.

There will always be individuals and, unfortunately, coaches who do not operate by the credo that there is no glory in winning by cheating. It is only winning - by any means - that counts.

So be it. It is then incumbent upon the world governing bodies of these sports to deal exceptionally firmly with not only the individuals who breach the rules but also their national associations.

It is really not enough just to ban an individual for four years and thereby effectively terminate that career - there will always be other up-and-coming youngsters to take the places of those who have erred and ultimately vanish from the scene. Unfortunately, too, in the eyes of certain countries' sports officials, the crime may not have been taking stimulants but being found out doing so.

If being caught taking performance-enhancing drugs entails a worldwide ban on a country for at least 12 months, it must surely give pause for some thought.

Of course, the totally innocent will be punished here along with the guilty and that is to be regretted. But much is at stake here. Sport cannot afford to be tarnished in the way swimming was in Perth last week and almost certainly will be again in the next Olympics in Sydney or in the events and the pressure that leads up to the 2000 Olympics.

Drug-taking is the cancer that gnaws away at competitive sport and the massive enjoyment sport brings to countless millions around the globe.

Only the firmest, or even harshest, of punishments will now suffice.