Drugs and the Olympiad

September 13, 2000

I would fail an Olympic drug test.

OK, before you jump to that conclusion, let me clear that I am not talking about cocaine or any of the other recreational drugs on the IOC's verbotin list.

No, my story is of the much more mundane variety. I recently developed an eye problem. Felt like something stuck under my eyelid and it would not go away. Little black floaters darting in and out of my range of vision. Drove me crazy.

I finally broke down and went to the local walk-in clinic to have a doctor take a peek. No foreign objects, no scratches or nicks - looks like an infection of a gland under my upper eyelid.

Well, OK, I could see how that would happen. Too much computer time (and too much drinking, and not enough sleep - it was, after all, our short summer here) found me rubbing my eyes frequently. One time too many, probably.

All that is kind of gross, and as I said, it has been driving me crazy, and so when the doctor prescribed some anti-bacterial eyedrops, I did not hesitate. But here's the catch: the eye drops also contain a steroid to ease the inflammation. And so, being doped up on steroids, I would not pass the Olympic drug test.

True, perhaps the steroid I'm using isn't the right kind of steroid to fail the test, but that's not my point. Over the last few years I've read of a large number of Olympians failing drug tests, and while some were no doubt bulking up on the stuff, others were contaminated innocently. They took the wrong cold medicine, or the wrong vitamin supplement, or in the case of a Canadian snowboarder, breathed the wrong air.

These medicines surround us because we need them and we want them. Quite often, they serve a benign purpose - in my case, much needed relief from a potentially serious illness. Cold medicines? I admit I have succumbed, particularly when I had a sniffle and needed a good night's rest before an important presentation. Breathing the wrong air? Absolutely.

So if we can use these medicines on a day to day basis, why not atheletes?

As near as I can tell, it is because our motives are pure and theirs are not. We are simply trying to cure ourselves of uncomfortable ailments, and they are trying to cheat. Our use is moderated by the needs of our health and welfare, while they risk life and limb in order to win at all costs.

It's a fine Olympic ideal, this theory that amateur atheletes should enter into global competition in the spirit of sportsmanship, unsullied by money, untainted by a drug-induced advantage. But it's an ideal which really does not stand the test of scrutiny, one which has had no practical application since the early 1900s, days when the Olympiad was populated by the idle rich looking to exercise their horse or flex their hammer throwing skills.

I could point out that these athletes train to within an inch of their lives (sometimes beyond, in the case or marathoners and high divers), employ the latest technology (including this year's fave, the shark skin swim suit), employ psychoanalysis and hypnosis, enlist the aid of government and corporate sponsors, and stand to win or lose millions of dollars on a single medal.

I could point that out, but everybody knows that. But nobody cares, not even the IOC (which, with its hands deep into others' pockets, has other things to worry about). Every edge and every advantage is available to the athlete willing to put his or her body on the line. Every edge, that is, except drugs - including the self same drugs which line our pharmacy shelves and which we give to little kids with runny noses.

The fact is, where medicine and pharmaceuticals are concerned, we live in an age of tremendous advance, and are at the threshold of an age where developments will be revolutionary. Our genetic code is within our grasp (I'd like to see the IOC handle that one), our knowledge of organic chemistry is almost complete, and our day-to-day access to health care would be viewed as wonderous even a generation ago.

The other half of my eye-drops - a standard grade antibiotic - was unknown for most of human history and has become widely available only in my lifetime. Modern anti-bacterial (and even anti-cancer) treatments employing genetically modified phage virii take our ability to deal with microbal ailments to another level.

Across the road from there I work, they developed a cure for diabetes, a cure which involves the painstaking transplantation of eyelet cells (and a cocktail of anti-rejection drugs), a cure which should help my younger brother who is afflicted with the disease.

For twenty years (until he died during the 1998 Winter Olympics) my father lived on an assortment of transplanted and artificial kidneys, surviving on the edge of modern medicine, yet receiving treatments available to any other middle-income blue collar worker in a modern industrial society.

Should my eyes fail completely - in, say, twenty years or so - artificial eyes will be available, employing neural-optic interfaces now in development and successfully tested. Should my cerebral cortex begin to fail, artificial brain-stem cells will be transplanted and grafted to my existing neural tissue, growing into place to serve whatever cognitive function is needed.

We don't - we say - want Olympians taking drugs, but should we ban every Olympian who has ever had a cold, treated an infection, required a kidney, or needed brain surgury? It boggles the mind that we would contemplate such 'pure' specimens of humanity, and chills our moral sense when we think of the risks and the pain such athletes would have to endure.

At the 1988 Seoul Olympics Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson ran the 100 meters in 9.79 seconds, a world record, and then famously, had his medal stripped because he used a banned steroid. Johnson - like most elite athletes - was on a regular program of steroids and other supplements, the doctors confident that they could miss the testing window with a proper doping schedule.

Johnson's doctors panicked, however, when he suffered a leg injury a few months before the games. A normal treatment for such an injury - a treatment designed to speed healing time and reduce incapacititation - involves an application of steroids. His doctors pushed the window to the limit, trying to help Johnson recover, and missed.

It was an international scandal. Johnson was disgraced, the Canadian government called an enquiry, and condemnation echoed all around. But missed in all of this is an essential element - Ben Johnson was trying to recover from a serious leg injury, an injury which not only jeopardized his chance to win fame and fortune, but also an injury which caused him considerable pain and suffering.

In no other discipline would we condemn a person for such action. When Ronald Reagan contracted bowel cancer (or some such thing - all I remember are the Doonsebury cartoons), he received the best treatment money could buy. Should Bill Clinton strain a neck muscle, nobody will complain if he takes a dose of steroids in order to be fit for duty.

Why do we judge athletes differently? Why do we think that when an athlete enrols in a training program which includes specific vitamins, steroids, and other aids, that he is cheating? The best moral philosophers can give us is that it pollutes the purity of sports. But even if we leave aside the observation that sport is already impure (not to mention downright dangerous), we have to ask, what idiot defined drug-free as pure?

I think that what we are seeing in the current anti-doping mania gripping the Olympics and other sports is not so much a desire for ethical purity as it is a deep seated fear of the unknown, where in this case the unknown is embodied in small white tablets (or whatever colour they are, and let's not get into the needle thing).

We can understand - an accept - the risk that an athlete takes when he runs to the limit of his endurance, or braves a raging whitewater torrent, or even when he hurtles around a racetrack at 200 miles per hour. But the danger a athlete faces when he engages in a steroid program is unknown to us; we can't relate, we can't understand it, it scares us to hell.

Medicine is beyond the ken of most of us. I cannot even understand without help what causes my eye to itch and burn; how can I be expected to understand what a designer drug will do to my system today or in twenty years?

An because we are afraid of the unknown, then with typical human projection, everyone should be afraid of this unknown, even those who have a good understanding of what is actually happening. And we find it absurd, even reckless, that an althlete would willingly accept this risk in the pursuit of Olympic gold.

But such a stance is unreasonable. If we adopted a policy of prohibiting everything people fear, we would have to live without aircraft, cars, computers, small enclosed spaces, snakes, and a variety of named and unnamed monsters under the bed. We cannot - have no right to - project our fears onto others, particularly when we willingly experience these fears by proxy when observing others engage in dangerous activities.

And moreover, we need also to move beyond our fears concerning drugs, genetic manipulation, human-computer interfaces, and all the other aspects of the medical age of miracles into which we are about to enter. Such fears are analogous to our grandfathers' fears of computer technology: sure it's mysterious and even a little threatening, but it's nothing an expert can't handle with ease and efficiency.

We have to get beyond these fears - but I think we are going to have to evolve a little as a society in order to do it. As we incorporate these new advances into everyday currency, our society becomes more integrated and interdependent than ever. Just as today we trust airline pilots, auto mechanics and elevator inspectors, so also we are going to have to learn to trust computer programmers, genetic researchers, and the local pharmacist.

That's hard to do, and harder even in a competitive environment like world-level sports. And so while a deep spirit of distrust shapes the ethos of our highest ideals, at the level of day-to-day commerce an entirely different moral stance will have to come into play.

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