When I talked about the honesty of running a couple of posts ago, I was talking about the participatory activity I know, not top level sport. With International athletics there is something else beside talent and dedication - the shadow of drugs.
I have no idea who has or has not taken drugs, what drugs have been used or to what extent but I know that they have been taken. When they are talked about it is in terms the race between methods of detection and methods of evasion and the black and white morality of cheating . When attention is paid to the individual athlete the focus is on the potential physical damage. I have heard very little about the psychological effects of internalising a huge lie.
Every athlete who dopes knows what they are doing, yet I can only think of a few cases where, when caught, an athlete admits to what they were doing. In the face of all evidence innocence is usually protested and the story is that the athlete is a victim of a conspiracy. This is often stated with such fervour that I am convinced that the athlete believes it themselves and that they have somehow split their brains so that one half doesn’t admit what the other half is doing.
In some ways I can see why this is important because part of the personal affirmation an athlete gets is knowing that they are better than the others, being the best , proving themselves. There can be no affirmation if you believe your success is due to having a better chemist - therefore the drug cannot exist as a factor. But what doe sit do to there sense of reality?
The reason I am thinking about this is that at the moment I am reading The Death of Marco Pantani, which is an immensely sad story. I have never read such a clear exposition of the way drugs were used in the sport, and in particular how Pantani’s success was based on EPO. Yet he denied this till the end and his manager still speaks in nonsensical evasions and justifications. His decline, paranoia, and cocaine use and eventual death all show someone cast adrift from reality.
Last week I also listened, on Radio 4, to Ben Johnson talking to Michael Buerk. He has an even more complicated position. He admits that he took drugs but still claims that the test that showed positive in Seoul was fixed and that he was tricked into giving evidence in the drug inquiry in Canada.
I suppose that we all have a tendency to explain things away, put a gloss on our achievements, justify what we do and make excuses for failure. It could be that top athletes develop this capacity alongside their athletic prowess - but if it is developed too much it becomes delusional. It must be very difficult for those for whom running or cycling is no longer a simple pleasure but sense of identity, a reason for being, a livelihood.
Not being any sort of athlete I have no such problems or temptation to try to prove I am faster than I am. So I will stick with my assertion that, for me and many others, one of the main attractions of running is its honesty.