Andy Murray and British sporting success

Andy Murray with Rio 2016 gold

Andy Murray is currently my favourite sportsperson. This surprises me, because for many years I could barely stand him. I’ll come to why I think I struggled to warm to him shortly. But right now I feel nothing but admiration. He’s a tremendous tennis player: he’s physically strong and mentally smart, he’s solid, robust and consistent, he has phenomenal talent and the full range of shots. Above all, he’s a supreme competitor; his fighting qualities and will to win are superb and among the very best I have seen in any sport. He may be a tiny bit behind Federer, Nadal and Djokovic when it comes to assessing overall greatness, but in the finest era in the history of men’s tennis there’s no shame in that. Murray’s achievements are outstanding (and there’s the promise of more to come—there is every chance that he may dominate the men’s game for the next year or so) and he undoubtedly already belongs among the all-time greats.

I like his personality as much as I like his tennis. Murray refuses to participate in the age of the celebrity. I love the monotonous drone of his voice (which has earned him a reputation as dull—but watch his tennis, which is anything but dull) and his downbeat, dry answers to interviewers’ questions. It all gives the impression that he is simply not bothered by demands to hone a glossier, more media-attractive personality. There is nothing flash or fame-hungry about him. Often attired on court as if he was intending to spend the time lounging in front of the television, he just gets on with the job of being a brilliant tennis player. But pay attention to the interviews: behind the drone is an extremely intelligent, drily humorous man.

Yet for a long time I liked him little. In part this stemmed from my own issues: I was a fairly good tennis player as a child, and for years I liked to imagine that if only my parents had granted my wish to be sent to tennis school in Florida it would have been me, rather than Tim Henman or Murray, who emerged as the finest British player since Fred Perry. I never, of course, seriously believed this, but even as a non-serious fantasy it was the source of a certain amount of envy towards Henman and Murray. (Anyway, having now made public that it could have been me winning Wimbledon—although, somewhat perversely, Roland Garros was always the one I wanted to win since I fancied myself as a clay court specialist despite never having played on clay—I have probably resolved this minor psychological issue.)

But that pathetic twinge of envy on my part was not really the problem. The problem was the hideously manic and frenzied support that surrounded Henman and then Murray. I struggle with unthinking, flag-waving patriotism at the best of times, and when it rears its ugly head at sporting events I get decidedly queasy. My objections to the fervent, enthusiastic support for Henman and Murray are, of course, no more rational than the patriotism I am criticizing. But it all struck me as cloying, sentimental and simple-minded. Many of the fans seemed to me—and I know I am being mean and unfair here—middle-class non-entities who knew little about tennis but wanted a jolly good excuse to wave a flag. I realize that all this makes me come across as an irritating idiot with feelings of superiority—which is doubtless what I was (and possibly still am in the eyes of some). But it meant that I wished for disappointment to descend upon the Union-Jack-emblazoned fans. That I have managed to transcend this petty-mindedness in the case of Murray is an indication of just what a fine tennis player and personality he is. And, perhaps, that I have grown up a bit.

Nevertheless, I still have a problem with the sheer sentimental, stupid guff that attends British sport. My pet hate is the short video productions the BBC likes endlessly to make for almost any significant sporting occasion, always full of empty, staccato-delivered short sentences (‘One man. Born in a land of mountains. Born to a lifetime’s quest. To conquer the ultimate mountain. To be the best. First there was the Swiss maestro. Then the Spanish bull. Then the Serb warrior. And now there is Scotland’s bravest. Britain’s finest. Andy Murray. The world’s number one.’—there, I’ve just scripted one for the BBC; all it needs is some footage of Scottish mountains, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, Murray hitting a winner, Murray lifting a trophy, all to the accompaniment of some stirring electronica). These dismal productions think they’re clever and inspirational and artistic, but are truly just utter junk taking up time that might be spent on intelligent analysis. They reduce sport—a brilliant, fascinating human activity—to the intellectual level of toddlers and the sophistication level of the Daily Mail. Yes, they really are that terrible.

It’s all of a piece with the general attitudes to British sporting achievement. I enjoyed the Rio Olympics not because of British sporting success, but despite it. I had no problem with any of the British medallists, and indeed cheered many of them on. But the constant obsession with medal success, with finishing high on the overall medal table, with surpassing Athens and London, was grating—and, in many ways, disturbing. Immense pride was taken in the millions spent on British cycling and the consequent Rio medal haul. All of which suggests some extremely skewed priorities: in a country with growing inequality, poverty and social problems, why are millions being spent just so we can triumph over the French, Germans and Americans in a velodrome once every four years? I value sport, but I’m content that Britain competes; I don’t demand that Britain wins. Watching interesting competition—between anyone, it doesn’t have to involve British competitors—is enough. So why was the Rio Olympics dominated by an obsession with British success?

Back in the Cold War era, countries such as the Soviet Union and East Germany were similarly obsessed with sporting success. And they achieved it (thanks, in part, to vast doping programmes). While their athletes were hoovering up Olympic medals, the economies and societies of these countries veered between impoverished stagnation and the brink of complete meltdown. Sporting achievements gave these countries a veneer of successful functioning. It was, as we know, all an illusion, but one that the Soviet Union, East Germany and others were determined to sustain as long as possible. And that’s why the British determination and obsession with global sporting success is so disturbing: it looks a bit too much like the desperate action of a country that knows, deep down, it is in difficulties, but wants to keep up the fantasy of greatness for as long as it can afford to.

The Rio Olympics came shortly after the EU referendum: here was a country that had just suicidally voted for its own terminal decline into irrelevancy and insignificance getting manically excited about its ability to produce men and women who could ride bikes really fast around a wooden track. I was pleased for Bradley Wiggins and the rest that they did the job the millions of pounds was funding them to do. Although I come across in this post as petty and small-minded, I genuinely did cheer (in a restrained, silent way) the British cyclists on. And then I gave some thought to what it all meant. It meant we could feel good for a few hours and forget about the numerous political, social and economic problems around us, and it meant that the fantasy of British greatness could be sustained just that little bit longer.

Iceland beats Poundland: Thoughts on Euro 2016

beautiful game
The beautiful game: Belgians tackling Ireland’s Shane Long

It being Sunday, and progress on my weighty essay on ‘Brexit and history’ moving forwards with all the purpose and clarity of England’s attack against Iceland, I thought I’d write about football. After all, Euro 2016 would seem to be a potential distraction from the Brexit clusterfuck that has descended on Britain and Europe. Brexit has, however, a habit of invading every area of life. For example, I posted to Facebook a photograph (above right) from the Ireland-Belgium match with an attempted witticism that had nothing to do with Brexit, only to discover that one of my relatives saw fit to post an anti-EU comment on it, an especially stupid and ignorant one as I subtly pointed out to him. But back to the football…

It has been a largely turgid tournament. The simple virtues of industry, organization and sticking to a basic plan have generally succeeded. Creativity has been conspicuously minimal. The prevailing tactic for many corners or free kicks in the final third has been to find a means to pass the ball all the way back to one’s own goalkeeper in order to build an attack with glacial slowness from the back. Not surprisingly, therefore, most scorelines have resembled binary computer programming.

Quality has been in short supply. This may be because of tiredness, either because of the rigours of long domestic seasons or because the widely-advertised ‘McDonald’s Player Escorts’ has been having an unfortunate effect. The standard of some of the awfulness has been impressive. In their opening group match against Poland, Northern Ireland resembled a bunch of Sunday league players who had won a prize to appear in the European Championships rather than an international football team. Fortunately for the Northern Irish, they then met Ukraine who resembled a bunch of Sunday league reserve players. Not that Ukraine were even the worst team in the tournament. Arguably the Czech Republic were even more awful; but indisputably Russia, who looked alarmingly unfamiliar with some of the basic principles of football such as running or passing the ball to a teammate, took the honour of being the most dreadful side in a tournament where the competition for that prize was intense.

Thanks to overcoming the feeble Ukrainians and then managing to keep Germany’s score down in their next match, Northern Ireland actually sneaked through to the knock-out phase. The format of the tournament has been widely, and rightly, criticized. It takes thirty-six matches to whittle twenty-four teams down to sixteen; but then having indulged various forms of risk-averse football from bad teams, the competition reverts to knock-out brutality as fifteen matches reduce sixteen teams down to the last side standing.

Defenders of the tournament structure point to how the enlargement of the Euros has meant that various minnows such as Albania, Northern Ireland and Iceland have been able to participate for the first time. But all of those countries would have qualified under the old sixteen-team format. Instead the enlargement has admitted various shades of dross. (And amid all the soul-searching in the FAs of Ukraine, Russia and England right now, one wonders what the Dutch are thinking: semi-finalists in the World Cup two years ago, the Netherlands failed to qualify for the Euros despite it being probably the easiest qualification process for any major football tournament.)

As the smallest country ever to qualify for any major football tournament, Iceland are the ultimate minnows. With a population of 330,000, once one has factored out women, children, the elderly, the sick, the obese, the researchers on volcanoes, it is hard not to wonder whether the Icelandic national football squad comprises all the able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35 on the island. In fact, something like 1 in 2,000 Icelandic men in that age range are representing their national side in France. They are wonderfully cheered on at their matches by many thousands of Icelanders who have presented the watching world with some fantastically choreographed, and slightly scary, chants. So many Icelanders seem to be in France that one fears for their homeland: the puffins may have worked out a way of taking over by the time the population returns.

icelandic fans
Happy Icelandic fans doing their brilliant chant

The Icelanders did manage to upset the usually humble, modest and generous-hearted Cristiano Ronaldo. By daring to defend against Portugal in their opening group match, rather than more properly bowing down at Ronaldo’s feet, the Icelanders achieved an unlikely draw and brought upon themselves the wrath of the demi-god who accused them of having a ‘small mentality’. Ronaldo’s wider point is worth considering: is it in the spirit of football or indeed humanity that an insignificant country such as Iceland should attempt to play to its own tactical strengths rather than to the tactical strengths of its larger and more important opponents? Would it not be fairer if smaller countries actually played to lose against larger countries?

The uncaring Norsemen defied, however, Ronaldo’s prediction that ‘they are not going to do anything in the competition’ by qualifying for the knockout phase. So it was in the round-of-16 that they met post-Brexit England. Pre-Brexit England had been talked up as a highly talented and youthful squad of players, and much was made of their lively performances in the group matches which yielded a draw against Russia (yes, the same Russia who proved themselves to be the worst side in the tournament), a win over Wales thanks to a goal at the death, and an utterly dominant 0-0 demolition of the mighty Slovakia. Few pundits gave the Icelanders much hope against the English juggernaut that was trampling its way across Europe.

Now, I have to confess that I was in such a post-Brexit funk that I decided to get pissed with a friend rather than watch the match. This was because I wanted Iceland to win, but didn’t give them much hope (and having put myself through the torment of watching one hope die on EU referendum night, I did not want to repeat the suffering so soon). I shall, of course, be accused of a complete lack of patriotism—but, you know what, I wear my lack of patriotism with pride. Of the many stupid beliefs one might have, patriotism is right up there with the stupidest of them. (And this gives me an opportunity to refer to a good article on patriotism by Will Self.) I have never understood why one should identify with people just because they were born in the same country as me; the ‘my country right or wrong’ mentality strikes me as the height of idiocy. Often I quite like England to do well because I sense the local happiness that this will bring, but actually I care very little. If Wayne Rooney was a passionate advocate of international justice, or Raheem Sterling was an admirer of Virginia Woolf novels, or Joe Hart spoke lucidly about the Stuart age, or Gary Cahill was a devotee of Bob Dylan then I might care, because in general I find myself identifying with people like that. But as it is, they are product-advertising millionaires playing for a country with the world’s worst national anthem and which, thanks to the EU referendum, had just decided to unleash bigotry and racism on its own people. (But I should be fair: I genuinely do celebrate the fact that the England side is a reflection of the cultural diversity of the country.)

I have subsequently watched most of Iceland’s convincing defeat of England (which sadly did not involve them bringing on Eidur Gudjohnsen as a riposte to England’s Boris Badjohnson). Most of the analysis concluded that England’s display had been awful—indeed, that it was arguably the worst ever performance by the national side. I prefer to be more generous: I think the England side were putting on a piece of performance art that attempted to convey the confusion, lack of direction and sheer horror brought about by Brexit. It didn’t win a football match, but it won my admiration for perfectly and aesthetically capturing the national zeitgeist.

Now Iceland get to meet the host nation. I am somewhat torn: on the one hand I want Iceland to continue their Viking heroics; on the other hand I would like to see West Ham’s Dimitri Payet resume his lonely mission to inject some flair, imagination, creativity and quality into the tournament.

As I write there is still the possibility of an Iceland vs. Brexity Wales final. Wales, in their first international tournament since 1958, have won more tournament matches in three weeks than England have in their previous seven tournaments combined. (Another fun England fact I have learnt: since 1966 England have won only six knock-out matches in international tournaments.) In the best match of the tournament (yes, better than the 3-3 goalfest between Portugal and Hungary), Wales put on a truly outstanding performance to send my pre-tournament tip Belgium home. Now they get the opportunity to do what Iceland so spectacularly failed to do: pay reverence to the divine genius of Ronaldo and let Portugal win. Yet, for all that a country ought to suffer a bit of karma for voting for Brexit, it is hard not to want Wales to get to the final.

Finally, it is worth noting that Germany are, predictably, still in the tournament. For those Brexiteers who voted Leave because they believe that Germany dominates Europe, nothing in Euro 2016 so far is likely to disabuse them of their fantasy. The Germans have been the best side, and have even found a way to win when hashing up a penalty shoot-out. They would make worthy champions: they play expansive, dynamic football based on a tactical and organizational approach as coherent as England’s was incoherent. If football is a guide to anything in this post-Brexit world, then it suggests that one ought to choose Germany over England every time.

UPDATE: Sadly Iceland have been knocked out by France. Which means that we will not get to hear one of the truly beautiful national anthems again in the tournament. Still, the Welsh have a lovely anthem we can enjoy, hopefully for another couple of matches.

Who dey? The Bengals!

Most sport-loving British men (and it does tend to be men) of a certain age have a favourite American football team. Back in the 1980s Channel 4 began covering the NFL with a highlights programme every Sunday and a live broadcast of the Super Bowl. Come Monday, padded out in our school blazers and ties and armed with a tennis ball, we would try to recreate what we had seen. Like most of the boys, I fancied myself as a quarterback, even though I could never see a pass or read the situation. But in my mind there was something spectacular and exhilarating about commanding a long drive down the field (or the concrete playground in our case).

It was the tiger stripes that won my heart…

The most popular teams in Britain in the 80s were the Dolphins (because of Dan Marino), the 49ers (because of Joe Montana), the Bears (because of ‘the Fridge’) and the Raiders (because of… actually I have no idea). The contrarian that I am, I refused to let popularity be my guide, instead opting for the team with what I considered to be the coolest name and strip: the Cincinnati Bengals. I soon discovered that they were widely regarded as a pretty terrible team (even if they had appeared in the 1982 Super Bowl, losing it to the 49ers, but that was before Channel 4 began its coverage). It mattered little to me: the Bengals might have lost most games they played, but they did so while adorned in tiger stripes.

And then in 1988 they briefly became good (thanks in large part to their fine quarterback, ‘Boomer’ Esiason) and reached the Super Bowl to face, once again, the San Francisco 49ers and Joe Montana. I still remember much about the game. A close fought, low-scoring affair (it was 3-3 at half-time), a third-quarter touchdown gave the Bengals the lead going into the final quarter. Thanks to a field goal, they still retained the lead with just over three minutes left, and with the 49ers pinned back by their own goal line. But then, over eleven plays, Montana drove his offense 92 yards up the field to deliver the winning touchdown with 39 seconds left to play. It was an extraordinary drive—but for a Bengals fan, it was about as painfully tortuous as sport gets.

That was the closest the Bengals have ever come to winning the Super Bowl. I left school and began university, and, lacking a television, I rapidly lost interest in American football. This spared me some fallow times for the Bengals: for about twenty years they were probably the worst franchise in the NFL, never remotely coming close to success, and usually failing in ways that invited ridicule rather than sympathy. And then a few years ago my interest in the sport was rekindled, and I discovered, happily, that the Bengals had surprisingly become quite good. Okay, they haven’t won a playoff game since George Bush senior was president, but the fact that they have consistently reached the playoffs over the past few years is something—these days they actually win more games than they lose. Indeed, as I write they have made a perfect start (4-0) to the current season, so optimism reigns once again.

My better self has long tried to dampen my enthusiasm for American football. There is, after all, much to dislike about it. The sport is intensely violent and aggressive and has real problems with long-term injuries; the culture surrounding it is dispiritingly meat-headed, money-oriented, and garishly showy (the Super Bowl is in many ways a hideous spectacle); it has a history of racism (for a long time black players were not allowed in the NFL) and homophobia; the NFL, by all accounts, is an appalling organization. On the other hand, the draft system which gives weaker teams first pick, the scheduling which ensures stronger teams have tougher fixtures, and the salary cap are all features which ought to give the English Premier League pause for thought.

Above all, it is a great game. Although it can never rival for me the flow, beauty and thrill of football (i.e. soccer), American football is an extraordinarily complex, intricate sport, capable of sustaining tension throughout. It can appeal on so many levels: it is fast, powerful, tough and highly physical; but there is also a beauty to its tactical sophistication, its clever plays, its use of bluff, deception, variety and skill in working out the best defensive or offensive strategies, all of which are attractive on a deeply intellectual level. I find it vastly superior to rugby. Whereas I struggle to find any intellectual or aesthetic appeal in rugby (most rugby matches look to me like an unthinking, primordial mess), American football mixes artistry and ideas in with the big hits.

Even so, I am not enthusiastic about the prospect of a London-based NFL team. I prefer a safe distance from the culture of the NFL. Anyway, although I know next to nothing about Cincinnati and will probably never visit the city in my life, I’m happy to keep on following the Bengals—and, given that they seem to be good whenever I show an interest, perhaps the Bengals are happy about that too.

Let Them Dope

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.