There are periods, sometimes, where stories of drug cheats, alleged or outright, swirl together like synthetic hormones in a beaker.
The reputation of Team Sky, the decade’s rampant force in road cycling, has had a slow puncture for months and this might yet be remembered as the week frame hit tarmac. Speaking to an ongoing parliamentary select committee convened by the UK department for culture, media and sport, UK Anti-Doping chief Nicole Sapstead cast serious doubts over the team’s medical practices and record-keeping.
Distance-running coach Alberto Salazar, whose charges include Sir Mo Farah, has again denied that his experiments with testosterone were unlawful, or that illicit substances were ever administered to his athletes.
Elsewhere there came Vladimir Putin’s blunt refutation of the existence of a state-sponsored Russian doping programme. “On the contrary, there will only be a fight against doping,” he said, with the air of a child denying biscuit theft through a mouthful of crumbs.
Putin did admit to some shortcomings in Russia’s anti-doping structure – which would be difficult to deny even without the weekly bulletins of failed historic tests – but the chief concern raised by the McLaren Report, as he saw it, was what to do about the poor storage conditions that had led to all those scratch marks on test tubes of human urine and instant coffee.
FSB-honed methods of persuasion notwithstanding, all of this builds to create the overwhelming impression that the anti-doping crusade is descending into quagmire. The notion that intelligence, rather than testing, is the route to the truth has long held currency, but less binary methods of assessing wrongdoing yield less emphatic conclusions. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the myriad disciplinary reactions to the aforementioned McLaren Report.
The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) latest missive on the subject – a 1,000-word letter written by secretary general Christophe de Kepper late last month – only served to underline this further. It backstopped the organisation’s halfway house response before Rio 2016 with more references to the difficulty of prosecuting individual athletes and to separate discussions about the accountability of the anti-doping authorities.
Everybody, it seems, can be a little bit guilty, and retain some plausible deniability, too. And a dynamic like this is always going to be exacerbated in elite sport, where exploiting every advantage so often means exploring the limits of every law. Everyone can retain some plausible deniability, too.
For the cynical, that serves to undermine the whole concept of clean sport, and even the more trusting observer can be compelled to ask whether all the effort is worth it. Much like the war on recreational drugs, the whole enterprise can appear both self-perpetuating and self-defeating at the same time. In that case, the sports industry might ask, why bother? Why does it matter anyway?
To answer that, you need to get to the heart of what sport is selling. Like so much else in the entertainment media complex in which it nestles, sport is a means of delivering stories. It is also a unique means of participating in them. Any challenge to that is unsettling, particularly after the fact. The word ‘cheated’ has multiple meanings, after all.
The other element in all of this is that a healthy minority of sports fans, if not a majority, got to know the games they love by playing them. If not, there’s a fair chance they’ll have been introduced by someone who did. In a sense, those people are all part of the same competitive fabric, one easily susceptible to corruptive tears. Leading from that – and countering the argument to allow scrap prohibition altogether – is the supposed link between professional sport and participation that goes the other way. If the performances of elite athletes are openly assisted by chemical methods, in what sense is sport any better at projecting health than, say, the cosmetic surgery business?
Doping, then, affects something close to the core of sport’s appeal in a way that goes beyond notions of morality and fairness. It interposes itself between the viewer and the action like a badly timed wink to camera. Even if people keep watching, the effect is not the same – it’s the difference between being told of a great adventure and living one.
To put it in more industrial terms, sport creates compelling content and inspires fierce loyalty – the latter of which, ironically, can survive the odd scandal – but both of those are more vulnerable than they first appear. Yet they are no better protected by pretending cheating never happens than they are by exposing the occasional indiscretion, however painful.
It is in that spirit that this particular war on drugs goes on. Maybe, sometimes, it really is the taking part that counts.