I was pleased that Usain Bolt won the 100 metres gold at the recent World Athletics Championship. There is scope, even with my cynicism, to be impressed, indeed fascinated, by his sheer power and ability. And, as athletes go (and such seems to be the usual athletic personality that we’re not talking about a high bar of qualification here), he seems charismatic and likeable. But secretly, and without caring much (I didn’t watch the race, and in fact the only event of the entire championships I saw was the Man versus Segway contest), I wanted Justin Gatlin to win. Gatlin, too, is evidently an outstandingly impressive sprinter and also seems likeable enough, even if not blessed with an abundance of charisma. But mostly I hoped that Gatlin would win just to annoy the dreary, sanctimonious, moralizing bores who dominate athletics commentary.
Marketing played, of course, a big part in the build up to the final of the 100 metres. The appeal of athletics is its simplicity, and for all that its commentators like to present it in terms of great technical, tactical and strategic sophistication, it is ultimately about nothing more complex than running, jumping and throwing. This actually makes it more compelling than marginally more sophisticated sports such as darts and rugby—or some of the time at least. I’ll admit to finding the races of Mo Farah or David Rudisha utterly gripping, but from the average athletics meeting no more than a tiny fraction of it is really worth watching. It is not easy to get enthused about a group of people running for ten seconds, or throwing a metal ball a few metres, or jumping a few feet into a sandpit. Commentators and fans routinely blather on about tactics such as ‘getting a good start’, as if not getting a good start is a viable tactical alternative. Concentrate on technique, run fast, don’t expend too much energy early on, don’t get boxed in—it’s all fairly straightforward. Athletics hardly requires the complex tactical considerations of most other sports: compare the complexity of how one might try to break down the catenaccio system in football, or how one might devise ways of breaking a batting partnership in cricket, or how one might figure out a way to deal with the power of Serena Williams in tennis.
Still, there are undoubtedly people who can remain glued to the screen for the duration of a marathon, and even I’ve managed it for the duration of Mo Farah’s races. But I would worry about the state of mind of anyone who claimed that even the most high profile marathon presents more textured drama than the average tennis or football match. So how does one generate interest in a sport so obviously limited and simple? Well, by turning it into a cosmic battle between good and evil of course.
Thus it became a contest between Usain the Good and Justin the Evil. If good triumphed, then athletics (and quite possibly humanity as a whole) was saved; but if evil triumphed, then athletics would be destroyed. (I believe there were six other competitors, but who knows what universal chaos would have ensued had any of them won.) The world watched (or some of it did), and, thanks to the tiny margin of one one-hundredth of a second, Good won out, the Earth kept turning, and athletics lived to see another day—something for which the competitors in all the remaining events were no doubt grateful.
For all that this hype was nonsense, I suspect most of the commentators believed what they were spouting. Sport does tend to bring out the most bizarre moralizing in people (and I’m as guilty of this as the next person—I can get outraged for many seconds by blatant gamesmanship on the part of West Ham’s opponents), and athletics’ fans and commentators seem to inhabit some rarefied moral atmosphere more than most. Their moral disgust (Paula Radcliffe talks of abuse, Lord Coe of war) at alleged cheating and unfairness in track and field conveys the sort of outrage normally reserved for human rights abuses, austerity-induced poverty, inequality and social deprivation, and illegal wars. I’m not suggesting, by the way, that they could not care less about any of these latter issues—I’m sure many of them do, and moral outrage is probably limitless—only that they moralize far too much, and far too stupidly, about athletics.
So why is Justin Gatlin, for so many athletics’ fans and commentators, the personification of evil (or, to fair-weather fans, of ‘everything that is wrong with the sport’)? Because twice in his career he was guilty of doping offences. The first occasion seems to have been unfortunately unintentional, arising as a result of medication he had been taking since childhood for ADHD. But then he was caught intentionally doping, went through the disciplinary process and served his ban. Having ‘paid his debt’ to the sport he returned to competition and has performed extraordinarily well, and, it might be noted, has been officially ‘clean’.
Now, in the criminal justice system, if an individual is guilty of a crime then they receive the punishment that society has agreed is appropriate. Part of the point of the punishment is that an offender against society owes a debt to that society; the punishment (whether a fine, a work order or a prison sentence) is the means to pay off that debt. Once this has been done, the individual can return to society with, as one might say, a clean slate. There are many problems with the criminal justice system, but in principle it allows for important things such as the possibility of social redemption, personal reform and acceptance of the fact that most of us make mistakes at various points in our lives.
If we applied those principles of justice to athletics, then it might be supposed that Justin Gatlin be considered an exemplary outcome of a system of justice. Here is a man who once was a sinner but now is reformed; a man who has paid the penalty for his past mistakes and has returned to show the world a better way. But athletics’ fans and commentators are a vindictive lot. Not content that Gatlin has done his time, not accepting that it is possible he made a mistake but has learnt from it, not willing to encourage him on a path of reform and redemption, they rather wish him to be drummed out of their sport for good. Perhaps they view the criminal justice system in similar ways, maintaining that there should be no reintegration into society of anyone convicted of a crime, that the mistakes and misdemeanours of an individual’s past should be carried through the rest of life like the mark of Cain.
Many athletics’ fans and commentators also have a slightly, and disturbingly, fascistic notion of purity. Aside from their worship of supreme physicality and the quest for perfect bodily performance, they are also obsessed with athletes being ‘clean’. Gatlin, it seems, is not only permanently sullied morally by his previous doping offences but is also irredeemably sullied physically. Only the human being who has been forever pure in body should be allowed in the hallowed world of the athletics arena. There is no place for the unclean in the utopian vision of athletics’ fans. And no, it is not such a huge leap from this language of purity and cleanliness, and from this focus on bodily perfection, to the ideals of fascism; not for nothing did the Nazis believe the 1936 Berlin Olympics to be a vehicle for their ideology, and not for nothing was Olympia (1938), the documentary of the 1936 Olympiad by the Nazi sympathizer Leni Riefenstahl, a film focused on the pure and perfect body.
Compounding the problem of Gatlin in the eyes of many athletics’ fans is the fact that he is very good—in fact so good that there are suspicions he is doping again. The principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is apparently not one held by many devotees of athletics. And so, without any evidence, it is constantly insinuated that Gatlin is cheating, with the result that borderline hysteria sets in among commentators and fans.
(Incidentally, I’ve always thought some perspective needs to be given to the idea that doping is cheating. No amount of steroids would help me get remotely close to an athletics’ final. Doping can only succeed with someone who already has the right physical attributes, is in prime condition and is putting in all the necessary training. So, although the doper’s success might owe something to cheating, for the most part it is something that has been earned by individual effort, skill and ability. But if I could figure out a way of getting the world’s best chess computer to feed me moves undetected, then I could become world chess champion. That really would be cheating since, my ingenuity at cheating aside, I would have done absolutely nothing to deserve my success.)
I have a solution to the issue of doping in athletics: let athletes dope if they want. Athletes, both men and women (not ‘girls’ as athletics’ commentators generally used to refer to the latter), are adults capable of making decisions and choices about their priorities in life. So let them make informed decisions about whether they want to dope or not. This should of course all be open and without any hint of moral judgment: athletes would declare whether they are doping (perhaps they could even be sponsored by manufacturers of steroids or clinics who manage blood doping…) and then we could just let them all race, throw and jump—and we could all stop worrying. If some individuals are happy to accept shrivelled testicles, unusual hair growth and the risk of premature heart attack in their quest for track and field glory, then fine. Most of us don’t have strong objections to others using all manner of medication and surgery to get on in life, so why should we be bothered by some athletes doing the same? The main problem now is that we seem to have no idea who is doping and who isn’t. But imagine a situation of full information: would it really matter, from the perspective of athletics as a sporting spectacle, that some competitors were doping?
As spectators we’d all get used to this, just as motor sports’ fans don’t bleat on about unfairness just because some drivers are in cars that have a decisive engineering edge. As long as the event is interesting I’d be happy. The fact that some athletes would be chemically-enhanced (and, let’s face it, even without taking additional chemicals none of us have exactly the same chemical balance anyway) would make little difference to what I was seeing. When I watched Ben Johnson in the 100 metres final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, briefly winning gold in a world record time, the subsequent revelation that he had been doping made no difference to what I had seen: the fastest human anyone had ever witnessed at that point in history. No matter what the record books show, Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times, a hugely impressive performance by any standards. (Nevertheless, he deserves the opprobrium he gets, not so much for doping but for his exaggerated, holier-than-thou anti-doping stance for so many years, and for coming across as a generally unpleasant man.)
A happy consequence for athletics is that, by allowing doping in an open and liberal way, one of the contradictions at the heart of most athletics’ commentary might be avoided. For all that commentators like to go on about ‘Olympian ideals’, about the taking part being more important than the winning (which in fact never applied at the ancient Olympic games—winning was everything in antiquity, and athletes would do whatever it took to ensure victory), their rhetoric is mostly focused on success. Winning a medal is invariably all that really matters; commentators love winners and success, they love saying things like ‘first is first and second is nowhere’, they love the idea of competitors who have only a single goal—winning gold—in mind. And they, and the athletes themselves, know full well that with success comes money and fame, and with failure comes poverty and obscurity. Given this pressure to succeed—a pressure generated in large part by commentators themselves—it is hardly surprising that many competitors will explore myriad ways to achieve success. If we allowed an open approach to doping, then commentators could both celebrate the determination and ambition of those doped-up athletes who win the medals while also lavishing some sentimentality (because athletics coverage, when not moralizing, is nothing if not sentimental) on those plucky also-rans who have decided that they prefer to have normal testicles and a heart that functions after the age of 40 rather than some precious metal around their necks.
So, if doping were allowed commentators could continue to get misty-eyed over success and sentimentality. And athletics would remain a spectacle worth watching occasionally. But just possibly it would cease to be an arena for pompous, sanctimonious moralizing.