Australia is roughly two weeks removed from what’s been described a scandal of monumental proportions that (apparently) has the potential to unravel the very foundation that our society is built on. The intimation that performance enhancing substances, organised crime and match fixing are prominent in professional Australian sport has shocked, surprised and disappointed many. The question I continue to ponder is are these reactions of shock and surprise legitimate or were people happy to look past the blatantly obvious as long as their teams and stars were winning?
Nothing in Project Aperio and the ACC’s 47 page glorified information pamphlet surprised me and neither should it have surprised you. Professional sport in Australia generates upward of 10 billion dollars of annual revenue. According to 2012 estimates provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that’s more than the nominal GDP of the Bahamas and Grenada who both supplied Gold Medalists at the 2012 London Olympic Games. Oscar Wilde’s immortal quote summarises the pursuit of money the best; “When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is.” With that sort of money circulating in professional sport, if you’ve seen any Hollywood produced movie in the past 50 years, the conclusion should be obvious.
In the interest of transparency, I’ll state that I was a professional athlete for a number of years and a paid Australian Institute of Sport athlete between 2005 and 2008. During my short professional career I won 2 Open National Decathlon titles, 1 Under 23 National Decathlon title and set B Qualifying marks for the 2006 Commonwealth Games and 2007 IAAF World Championships. In the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, I managed to effectively end my sporting career by snapping my left tibia and fibula in a High Jumping mishap whilst competing in Beijing, May 2008. I received 2 lump sump payments totalling AUD$18,000 in 2005 (identified as Gold Medal potential for the 2006 Commonwealth Games) and for the majority of the time a live out allowance of AUD$1,400 per month. Give or take a few thousand, during this time my earnings from Track & Field Australian Sports Commission funding was 70,000 dollars. What you don’t know is between 2005 and 2009, I required 6 surgeries: 2 to my left knee, 2 to my right shoulder and 2 on the broken left tibia. Those surgeries were roughly 2,500-3,000 dollars each of which 1 was paid for by the AIS. To put the financial renumeration into perspective, my brother made more in his 2004 rookie AFL season than I did as an elite athlete in 3 years under the ASC funding arrangement of the time.
It’s fair to say that as an athlete I never lived up to the potential or investment the Australian people and government put into me. It’s also reasonable to suggest that my earnings potential was negatively affected by injuries. Had I been able to remain injury free, I would have been competing on the European circuit in the World Combined Events Challenge where prize money regularly reached 30,000 euros for a first place finish. Australian representative team funding escalators would have kicked in and small sponsorship packages would have been negotiated through my management. Youtube sensations such as Michelle Jenneke jiggling her hips and catching the eye of sponsorship executives are the exception not the norm. Earning power is directly attributed to performance and performance consists of talent, hard work, access to resources (including human expertise) and competition. I’ve put forward this position as selective journalism and editing pisses me off. Having experienced the power of “creative licence” and misrepresentation of facts in the media, I can assure you when a full story isn’t presented, context isn’t applied and it’s easier for people to misunderstand simple facts or a straightforward position.
Attached below was a typical training week for July & August of 2006. There are several stages of preparation that an athlete progresses through in a season, normally bound by specific competitions and time frames. This particular training phase is known as “competition preparation”. It is a high intensity, tune up phase that allows the athlete to “peak” for an upcoming competition. This peak theoretically sculpts the athlete into a high powered drag car ready to hit the tarmac.
Listed in the timetable are specific sessions that shaped my weekly Decathlon training or physical therapies (physiotherapy, soft tissue treatment and acupuncture). None of the progress meetings or sessions such as nutrition, strength and conditioning, athlete-coach, biomechanics and library/film study are listed. You’ll also notice that everything is strictly Track & Field. There’s no inclusion of university or outside commitments such as attending charitable pursuits, visits to juvenile detention centres or schools. At this point, you may be thinking that doesn’t look particularly difficult, I work 9-5, run a household and fit in my own gym sessions and personal life into an equivalent timetable. That’s a fair position to put forward. My response is simple. Irregardless of the weather, try and simulate that program whilst working at a high intensity. That is, the hardest you’ve worked whilst you’re training with your personal trainer, go and do that for every one of the 20 odd training sessions in the attached timetable across 6 days. Even simpler, if you work in a desk job, work at your maximum capacity for the majority of your 40 hour work week. It’s pretty bloody difficult to maintain focus, motivation and intensity for long periods of time. Perhaps now you can begin to understand why athletes consider the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs).
There’s a common misconception that PEDs and other related substances are a magical cure that transform every Bruce Banner into the mighty Hulk. That’s simply not true. I’m not going to bother going into product specifics as the internet provides a wealth of knowledge on the topic. What I will state is the use of PEDs facilitates muscle repair, performance and recovery. In layman’s terms, that means you can train harder for longer whilst recovering faster. The athlete still has to put in the training. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a bastard. In my experience, DOMS sledgehammered me about 48 hours after a specific session. Over the course of a week, you’re in a perpetual state of soreness. There would be times at the end of my day where I would sit on the shower floor and almost fall asleep for up to 15 minutes (my sincerest apologies for the water wastage) because I was physically shattered and that sore simple movements made me feel like a newborn Wildebeest learning to use my legs 5 minutes after birth. When you consider the volume of training Grand Tour cyclists are subjected to, it came to me as no surprise that a man with one testicle was engaged in one of sport’s more elaborate doping programs. Truthfully, I wasn’t upset that Lance finally admitted he doped in a contrived interview with Oprah. As Lance does, Lance made it about Lance, not the careers he crushed on his ascent.
In my opinion, the concept that underwrites the ACC’s report “Fair Play” is a load of toss. FIFA pretends to enforce a notion of financial fair play with slim to no success. At the time of writing, Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain were leading their respective leagues in Europe. In the AFL, last year’s top 4 – Hawthorn, Adelaide, Sydney and Collingwood are financial juggernauts. The reality is, in professional sport, there is a clear divide between the have and have nots. There is another divide, the difference between those doing what it takes to win and those who don’t. The most famous of all busted dopers (and arguable scapegoat), former Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson said it best when he said “I’m not a cheat – I do what I am supposed to do to win.” With that mentality, it doesn’t matter what the AOC and ASC does because there’s a lot of smart people in the world who will do what it takes to win. The Essence of Sport is a nice concept, but it will matter for little as Australia falls down medal tallies at the Olympics and World Championships. Sure, we’ll probably dominate the Commonwealth Games, but ask any serious athlete for their opinion on the Commonwealth Games and its relationship to the Olympics or World Championships. The reality is, there is money, fame and glory in medals. There is no participation award at the elite level. You win or you don’t. That’s the nature of the beast. That’s what drives people to gain a competitive advantage. An advantage of 1/100th of a second can be the difference between first and second or third and fourth. It doesn’t matter what we do in our own backyard because our competitors won’t be playing by our rules and standards. I liken it to our competitors owning an arsenal of nuclear weapons and Australia choosing not to develop their own nuclear weapons in the interests of fairness.
It’s not my position to lecture anyone reading this blog on the morality of PEDs. My career may have been very different had I been capable, willing or able to “juice”. If presented with the opportunity to be involved with a program where I knew I wouldn’t be caught, I have no idea how I would have reacted. I say this openly as I never thought I would abuse substances for a short period of time to escape the reality of what my life and career had become in 2008. I would hope I would have chosen the virtuous path, but it’s difficult to comprehend such a decision when a close friend comes back from Europe in 2012 disheartened knowing that they are competing against PED users after observing a room full international calibre athletes having intravenous injections administered by sports scientists post competition. Don’t bother asking for names and nationalities, I’m staying mum on this one. What I will say is I’ve seen people who were clear Gold Medal favourites at the Olympics fail because they were cruelled by an injury. One wonders what the outcome would have been had the timing of their injury been more agreeable with the Olympic schedule or if they were “allowed” to have products that would have helped their recovery time administered to regain their peak performance level in time for the grandest of all contests. Four years is a long time to wait for another crack.
As spectators, we’re partly responsible for the behaviour of those associated with professional sport. Who doesn’t love seeing Usain Bolt destroy world records, Michael Phelps submarine opponents and Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer engage in 5 set epics? Not for one minute am I suggesting these men are on PEDs, but our want and need to be entertained can and does push athletes aspiring to be the next Djokovic, Federer or Nadal to the edge of reason. It isn’t unrealistic to think one day we’ll see Ben Richards running through the game zone being chased by stalkers. In August of 2012 Chris Smith, a journalist with Forbes put forward the position “A huge part of watching sports is witnessing the very peak of human athletic ability, and legalizing performance enhancing drugs would only help athletes climb even higher.” In Volume 38, Issue 6 (2004) of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Savulescu, Foddy and Clayton propose that “we define the rules of sport.” If drugs are legal and freely available then it’s not cheating. If you believe some fundamentalists, homosexuality is/was a sin. In society today, we’re now considering and passing legislation to give same sex couples the right to marry. The standards which society operate upon are not set in stone. They represent standards at a certain point in time and nothing more. These are interesting positions because regardless of what the authorities do, athletes will continue to dope and the divide between the have and have nots will continue to grow larger. The authorities will always be reactive forces. They can delude themselves into thinking they are being proactive where the reality suggests “dopers” were onto the next thing years ago.
An interesting piece in Savulescu, Foddy and Clayton’s article (it’s a great read – located here) was the notion of fairness. Is it fair that genetics provides some people with an unfair advantage thanks to mutations or chance? Is it fair that PEDs provide some people with an advantage over others? Savulescu, Foddy and Clayton’s proposed that “by allowing everyone to take performance enhancing drugs, we level the playing field”. I don’t necessarily agree with the positions, but it’s an interesting point, one which I hadn’t considered before doing some reading for this piece. It’s a chicken or egg debate. It’s not fair that some children are born into poverty and others into royalty. There may be no difference in physical or mentality ability and aptitude at birth but both are subject to circumstance. The reality is, life is not fair. It sure as hell wasn’t “fair” when ASADA came knocking on my door at 5.30AM Sunday mornings to take blood and urine samples on my only rest day of the week. Life is about trade offs and having to inform ASADA of my whereabouts for 24 hours and 7 days a week didn’t seem fair to me, but that’s what you give up as a professional athlete.
Australia is the lucky country. I accepted a long time ago that people will push the boundaries of propriety when fame, money and glory are involved. Do I think there are doping programs in Australian sport? Sure. Am I going to allow it to affect my enjoyment of Australian sport? Not a chance in hell. Do I hope people involved in suspicious programs are exposed and “clean” competitors win against all odds? You bet. Here’s the reality of this situation; Kate Lundy and ASADA have had their time in the sun, spectators are going to come out in force to watch their stars, some collateral damage will occur and the wheels of sporting industry will continue to turn. There’s always another “scandal” tomorrow.
If there’s no test for it then it’s not illegal. Keep that in mind. The programmers are.