Usain Bolt has just deservedly won the 100m World Championship for a third time, having beaten Justin Gatlin on the line by a thousandth of a second. It was a superb race, full of needle and bite.
Bolt showed himself to be every inch the legend he is by overcoming Gatlin’s far superior form and his own shaky performance in the qualifying rounds, epitomised by this morning’s semi-final in which he basically had to start again about 35 metres in after coming close to falling.
Unfortunately a great race between two supreme competitors was marred by commentators’ insistence on making it about the reputation of the sport. Gatlin is very much the pantomime villain in the eyes of the athletics community, having come back from a four-year ban for taking testosterone.
Steve Cram’s ludicrously overblown commentary on the final epitomised this. As Bolt crossed the finish line and began to cavort as is his wont, Cram went so far as to say that the Jamaican “may have saved his sport”.
My own view on this is likely to be unpopular. But it seems fairly clear to me that one race – however cathartic the result – does nothing to address the fundamental issue here. The problem is that once you introduce prohibition, people will inevitably seek ways around that prohibition. It is what human beings do.
In the world of elite athletics, where sportspeople are focused on doing everything they can to gain a tiny competitive advantage, it is little wonder that every so often -probably more often than anyone cares to admit, and certainly more often than the authorities are able to spot – someone finds a new way to cheat.
The answer is to recognise that “performance enhancement” is the essence of what it means to be an elite athlete. The Olympic motto, “Citius, Altius, Fortius” – faster, higher, stronger – is the simplest formulation of that credo.
A truly liberal solution to the problem of drugs in sport would simply be to treat athletes like adults. They take risks with their own bodies all the time in an effort to improve themselves. The wonders of biomedical science are brought to bear on them; in many ways they are lab rats masquerading as entertainers. So why are we so squeamish about what they choose to put in their bodies?
Clearly there should be safeguards, particularly for athletes on the cusp of adulthood who may be put under too much pressure. No one wants a return to an era when hundreds of athletes were routinely and indiscriminately doped for the glory of the Soviet state. So you might have to tighten competition rules to prevent the occasional precocious teenager from having too great an incentive to take too big a risk.
Some might also say that it would give too great an advantage to the wealthier nations or athletes, who are able to access and develop more expensive treatments and drugs. But let’s get real. If that’s a problem, it already exists. If you’re at the top of a sport it means you have the best of everything – nutrition, training, accommodation, and the rest. It seems unlikely to me that in a World Championship final such as the one run today, there is a major difference between the financial support each athlete in the race receives.
The only other objection that I can see is moral. It’s in the semantics of the debate, this, and probably the biggest barrier to my suggestion ever becoming a reality. People love to throw around words like “clean”, “pure”, “unimpeachable”, and the rest. The response to the race today sounded more like a Daily Mail article than anything else – pious and moralistic, damning of an athlete in Gatlin whose only current crime is to have had the guts to return to the sport, as he is perfectly entitled to do under current rules.
But if you’re not going to open up athletics completely to all of the technological and biomedical innovation and ingenuity humanity can muster, and you’re not going to ban people for life when they take drugs, you should probably stop whinging or suggesting that the whole sport is somehow under threat when an athlete of Gatlin’s calibre comes close to winning a major championship.
It’s time to treat athletes and sports fans alike as adults.