To show that drug use among athletes has gotten completely out of control - assuming it was ever in control - we need not look at the Olympics, but at the little 400-meter dash regatta being held in Sursee, Switzerland, on October first. This is a fun little Fall regatta, not even remotely serious (although run professionally). The most popular event in terms of entries is the mixed 2X, which required nine heats. It is hardly the place that we should expect drug-taking to be an issue.
After winning the women's open 2X, two rowers from my club were tested for drugs. They passed the test, of course, but it made a lot of us pause to think about what just happened. Most people laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. Our club officials made a note that, for what it's worth, we should expect our athletes - especially our elite athletes - to be drug tested at any time.
I am sure that many readers will say that this is a good thing. Until this incident, I think I would have reacted favorably to this drug test as well. But then I thought about it a little bit, and decided that it is really rather sinister.
As the Olympics went on and the issue of performance-enhancing drugs grew and grew, most people in the rowing community carried big smirks. FISA has been a leader in drug testing, and has a very strict policy - one positive test results in a lifetime ban, and testing is not only done at the big events and not only at events at all, but rather can be done at any time (even, it seems, at silly little for-fun regattas running simultaneous with and on the other side of the planet from the Olympics). FISA has trumpeted its suspensions rather than kept them quiet, and with good reason. Many sports are so tarnished that they want to hush these things up, even if it results in someone coming back from a ban. FISA is proud of its policy.
The only case I can remember when a positive test did not result in a FISA ban came a few years back at the Pan Am Games with Silken Laumann. In that case, if I remember correctly, FISA believed her story (team doctor prescribed medication which contained proscribed drugs) and although her crew was stripped of its gold medals and the doctor was sanctioned, she was allowed to remain in the sport. I have indeed heard muttering that if it were not Silken Laumann, of all people, then FISA might have nevertheless upheld its normal life ban - but I believe they did the right thing regardless.
But it does make me wonder about all the draconian measures that are being taken these days. First of all, consider the official words used - it is not "drug testing" but "doping control." What on earth does "doping control" mean? If memory serves me, "blood doping" was a fad a number of years back involving athletes removing their own blood - I believe to simulate altitude training - and then injecting that blood back into themselves shortly before competition for extra strength. Since it did not involve elicit substances but rather only involved the athlete's own blood, it was difficult to detect. I was not paying much attention at the time, so I do not remember what was wrong with this (other than moral reasons). But there was something wrong, and it needed to be controlled, apparently. The term "doping control" then spread innocuously to drug testing, which has a more sinister ring. I am no fan of double speak, so I will call it what it is: drug testing.
But let us stick with blood doping for a minute here. If we agree that the process involves no elicit substances, even if it may be unhealthful and can give the athlete who partakes an advantage - well, then, what is the difference between this and altitude training, other than that the latter involves a special type of training and the former involves tricking the body? Ban blood doping and we might as well ban altitude training. If someone comes from a lake high up in Mexico City, then it is ok. Otherwise, it is unfair for anyone else to go to Mexico to train (I guess that explains why Mexico is a rowing superpowerÉ not).
OK, I realize that there are health issues at stake with doping, so it is not really a fair analogy. Or is it? The amount of physical training Olympic athletes put themselves through is also not exactly healthy, in the traditional sense. Steve Redgrave would probably be a healthier man today if he had not put himself through the last twenty-odd years of elite rowing. But who wants to stop him? It would defeat the whole purpose. Everything we do in life is about making choices. If we choose to be elite athletes, then we are accepting what goes along with that.
It is very faddish these days to do all sorts of medical and physiological tests with athletes in order to further their performance abilities. Now, I have gone on record as personally opposed to these things - call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to coach on the basis of watching boats move. I have respect for the physiologically-based coaches (assuming they also remember to watch the boats move - many are so wrapped up in their tests that they forget). I also have respect for the medical profession which creates these tests and which does provide nifty feedback. I regularly read up on physiology and medical articles, because it helps me be a better coach, and allows me to understand better how the human body works so that I can - without testing - train it better. But I choose not to employ these test methods. I do not object to these methods being employed by others, however.
It does, nevertheless, seem like we are splitting hairs. What makes one physiological test different than another? My current club has a new head coach, and he was pricking one athlete's ear repeatedly during an erg test last week in order to test her blood. That's OK, I presume. When does it stop being OK? I'll be damned if I let anyone prick my ear repeatedly during an erg piece - but I did not have to make the choice, and the athlete concerned was well aware of what was going on. Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, I had four juniors doing erg pieces with no shoes, no straps, and a rate cap of 16 - so it is all about coaching choices. I was not doing blood tests, but I was nonetheless doing tests which involved tricking the body and training for better long-term performance.
So, on to elicit performance-enhancing drugs. Let us start with the ones which are not necessarily unhealthful - they merely enhance performance. I have a hard time with this concept. First of all, although something seems to be merely performance-enhancing today, we could learn tomorrow of its ill side-effects. Second, from the other side of the argument, it may merely be performance-enhancing in a way which is no different that altitude-training. Or, forgetting about altitude-training, how about plain old sensible training?
If someone trains sensibly - staying on their home water and doing no drugs, they will still get better. They will also be putting their bodies through unnaturally hard work (although I suppose I am not really defining "unnatural" - did mankind's ancestors have a physically hard life?). Some people, in the pursuit of speed, will train badly - they will over-train or will do the wrong sorts of exercises (wrong being relative - what type of training works for one crew does not necessarily work for another). Some athletes get injured as a result of things they do, and some injuries can result in permanent damage. I coached a rower once who had badly dislocated both of his shoulders doing a Summer job after his freshman year. The doctors told him he could continue to row as long as he could tolerate the pain, but that either way he would need the same surgery to repair the damage and would not row after the surgery. So, after discussing the issue with several doctors and his parents, he rowed for one more year in terrible pain, and then gave in to the inevitable. My point is: what is natural?
This allows me to breach the taboo subject of elicit health-damaging drugs. If someone is stupid enough to take drugs to enhance athletic performance, then they deserve to suffer the consequences. Sure, a drug considered safe today could turn out to be damaging in the long-term. But that is inherent with all drugs. Even safe drugs might cause reactions in certain people. By ingesting anything, an athlete should know there are inherent risks. In my personal life, I don't do drugs. I also shun doctors - not out of lack of respect, to be sure, but because what is a doctor going to tell me? That I am sick? If I go to a doctor, I know I am sick. I also know I am going to die at some point anyway. So, I avoid doctors. I avoid drugs. I avoid sick days and keep working through my illnesses. At home, I throw on a few extra blankets and make chicken soup. If I am in severe and prolonged pain, I sometimes take a single tylenol. I cured my longest-ever period of prolonged bad health by moving from England to the southern U.S.
Maybe there are some drugs which could make me healthier when I am sick. But they, too, must have consequences. The only drug I swear by is epinepherine as an emergency medication for my severe peanut allergy.
Therefore, an argument can be made to just let people be. If someone wants to do something silly for the short-term benefit of winning a race, so be it. May they die a slow and painful death. Meanwhile, those of us who represent the vast majority of athletes who are clean can get on with our lives without these intrusive drug tests. I know I am clean, and if someone wants to test me then I take that as an insult - they are implying that I am a liar: if I test positive, they know I am a liar and a druggie, of course; if I test negative, they confirm what I told them, but have nevertheless accused me of being a liar in the process by not taking my word for it.
There is also the moral argument. If we take a hands-off approach to drugs, the innocent victims are the ones who do not use drugs and who loose races as a result. Why should they be penalized because some folks do use drugs to enhance their performance. My conservative nature sympathizes with this argument. Sports should remain pure. People should not "cheat," however cheating may be defined. And drugs seem, by their very nature, to be cheating: an athlete willing to mess up his long-term health in favor of winning now, while a pure athlete loses now because he is unwilling to win at that cost.
The problem comes, though, at drawing a line. If we ban elicit drugs because of health detriments, we then make the next step to banning drugs which merely enhance performance but do no known long-term damage to most people, and from there we can hit blood doping and other similar fool-the-body techniques. What next, though? Do we stop altitude training? Do we limit the number of hours anyone can train in a week. Do we limit the equipment people can use (should we say only hand-made equipment made from natural substances - wooden boats and oars, anyone?). I think it is a slippery slope.
We let professionals in the Olympics now (although it was a justifiable argument that we have let them in ever since the Soviet-bloc countries sent their machines to compete). Maybe we should ban them again? The only rowers allowed in international competition must work a minimul of forty hours a week in the non-rowing world, and may train (in wooden boats) for only ten hours per week? Do we have FISA spies deployed everywhere to make sure that people are at their desks for the full forty hours, and that they don't exert themselves more than the allowed ten? How about spies to check that rowers only train on their home water (no training camps allowed) except for certified competitions?
If we get carried away with the purist argument, we go back to the dark ages. Jack Kelly, the US single sculler in the 1920s, was banned from racing at Henley because he owned a brick-laying company. Not only was his pedigree not good enough for the British establishment, but because he had to lay bricks himself he had an unfair advantage over the British men-of-leisure (who, if they worked at all, did no physical labor). It was highly unsportsmanlike of Kelly to go beat the Brit for the 1X Gold at the Olympics.
I certainly do not advocate drugs of any sort. I also cannot countenance the sort of ultra-purist mentality prevalent once-upon-a-time. We need to find a place to draw a line in the middle. The trouble is, I have just realized that I am not comfortable with drawing a line.
It is amusing that one insignificant drug test at an inconsequential regatta has made me swing from having pride at FISA's tough anti-drug stance to questioning whether we should not just give up and let folks do whatever they want to their bodies. It's a tough call.
Back to Charles Ehrlich's Letter from America.