Updated: Feb 21, 2019
On 3 April an article was published in The Sunday Times which caught my attention (and, as it turned out, the attention of the wider media).
The article was about that very subject of the moment, doping in the world of professional sport.
According to the article, a doctor called Mark Bonar (who has since achieved a certain level of notoriety) operates from a clinic in central London, where he says he treats athletes with banned substances who have, subsequently, achieved phenomenal improvements in their sporting performance.
Let’s try here not to be too judgemental or moralist with regard to this issue, regardless of the actual and eventually proven facts of the case. We live in a society where results in whatever sphere matter and a large number of people are under tremendous pressure to succeed in their professional (and indeed in their personal) lives for much of the time.
So ask yourself, what would you do, if in order to win a competition, or to demonstrate your competitiveness, someone such as a doctor (or a similar professional) was to guarantee you the potential success and results you desire by your taking of a banned or illegal substance?
Until one finds oneself in that specific situation, I think it is very hard to give an honest answer to that particular question.
A good point of reference in the wider (doping) debate would be that of the Lance Armstrong scandal. Once you cross the line - as Armstrong evidently did - it is hard to identify the truth between genuine athletic performance (and the merits of the particular athlete in question) and what doping brings in terms of that ‘little bit extra’.
For me, Armstrong remains an athlete. But how could you measure Armstrong's performance knowing what we do about his doping and his use of banned performance-enhancing substances? It is a tricky dilemma, I think (especially when you also take into account the fact that the top ten riders in the Tour de France when Armstrong won it had been involved in their own doping scandals).
Another case to bear in mind here is that of Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who won the 100 meters final at the 1988 Summer Olympics, running the race in 9.79 seconds.
Johnson was then disqualified when it was discovered that he had taken illegal substances prior to the race, which were claimed to have boosted his athletic performance during it. If you watch the race today on YouTube, you can clearly see that Johnson has a massive muscular advantage over Carl Lewis (his much praised rival at the time).
As a point of comparison, Usain Bolt has run the same 100 meters distance in the modern era in 9.58 seconds (though there are no suspicions over performance-enhancement in such Bolt performances).
It is curious to note, however, that Bolt is taller than Johnson, which is an interesting physiologic aspect in terms of the stature of sprint runners which can influence their performance (and their competitive advantage over their rivals).
Today we ask more and more of our athletes.
In the National Basketball Association (NBA), for example, a season is today 86 games long (which represents nearly three games a week), whilst in rugby, players at the international level are statistically 10kg heavier than they would have been 10 - 15 years ago because of the demands placed on them to perform. Just take a look at the coverage of the World Cup tournament in 1995 that took place in South Africa and then look at the tournament held in England last year to see the difference.
And then there are professional tennis players, who can be expected to play the whole year round without a break (whilst the prizes afforded the top flight players increases year after year).
It would be too easy to point out those people who have crossed the doping line and to condemn them and their behaviour, though an understanding of the context to that behaviour is also vital in understanding why such individuals can be so tempted to take the doping route to success.
To draw a parallel with my own work, I never hear anyone speaking proudly about taking illegal substances to get bigger (whether such substances are steroids, hormones, or similar).
Which says it all for me, really.
There are many people who do amazing things with their life, and who follow clear and strong guiding principle and values. Those individuals, in my experience, are the people that question the legitimacy of achieving goals when pride or achievement is not part of that success.
So, for me this debate is not primarily about issues of legality or whether behaviour is right or wrong. It is about honestly and integrity. Or, to put it another way, it is about being authentic in our actions and being true to ourselves.