This Sporting Life

Sport and drugs ain’t rock ‘n’ roll

Long ago, when I had hair, I gave up my fledgling career as a journalist to become a rock star. Despite giving it my all, some minor successes and those impressive, flowing locks, I never got to join rock’s immortals. After a few years, I embraced a more comprehensive range of writing – including music – from which I’ve made a living ever since.

Back in the day, I was working in a studio with other musicians when a genuine rock god, who shall remain nameless (but you’d almost certainly know him) turned up. He was carrying a medium-sized, brown, rather battered, leather suitcase. He was a big admirer of one of the musos on the session. In fact, he admired this particular guitarist’s playing so much that he was frequently heard to say that he’d, “like to cut his effin’ hands off!” He meant it affectionately, of course.

We were in the control room listening to a playback of a song I’d written. Mister rock god listened politely, without comment, until the track ended and then lifted the suitcase onto his lap. He turned the key in the locks, clicked open the case and raised the lid. “Right lads,” he said with a smile, “what d’yer fancy?” The case was crammed with substantial quantities of just about every illegal drug available at that time. Some of us indulged, some of us didn’t; some of us did various drugs at other times, some of us didn’t. Some of us even reckoned that drugs enhanced our performance as musicians, some of us didn’t.

We can all list music legends who have lost their lives to drugs; maybe because they were addicted not just to their choice of drug, or drugs, but to that ultimately unattainable quest for musical perfection. And for every one of those megastars there are many, many more who have gone the same way; lesser performers perhaps, but no less in love with their music and the pursuit of that frustratingly unachievable riff or that once-in-a-lifetime solo.

“Ah yes,” I hear you say, “but what’s this got to do with sport?” Well, I’ll tell you. Back then, we music-making wannabes were old enough to make up our own minds about indulging or indeed overindulging in drugs. Stupid or sane, inspired or insane, we made the decision. We may have endured an element of peer pressure one way or the other, but we knew the risks and ultimately it was our choice.

It’s the same in sport. Down the years, numerous men and women have chosen whether or not to go down the drugs’ route in their quest to enhance their performance and make it to the pinnacle of their sport. It would be naive to deny that some dopers have got away with it. Now their trophy cabinets will be set against their consciences. It was their choice and they have to live with it. But there are multiple examples of those who tried to beat the system and failed spectacularly – former American superstar cyclist, Lance Armstrong, for one. For years, and despite suspicions, he denied any involvement in doping.

But in 2012, a United States Anti-Doping Agency investigation concluded that he had used performance-enhancing drugs over the course of his career. He was stripped of all his titles, including seven consecutive Tour de France victories, and went overnight from being a legend to a sporting pariah, who will be remembered only as a cheat. But again, no one forced Armstrong to take that risk in his quest for glory; it was his choice, his decision.

What occurred on the ice rink at the recent Winter Olympic Games in Beijing was something else entirely. Most of us watched in horror as fifteen-year-old Russian figure skater, Kamila Valieva, who had previously failed a drugs test, was cleared to compete in the individual women’s figure skating competition after an appeal against a ban. The explanation for her failed test was that she had somehow drunk from the same glass that her grandfather had used to take his heart medication, which sounded about as convincing as Boris Johnson trying to explain his way out of a Downing Street lockdown party. 

At the Games, Valieva had starred in the winning team event for the Russian Olympic Committee (they were banned from competing as Russia because of previous doping offences) and was clear favourite for individual gold. She led after the short programme but with the world watching she suffered miserably in her free skate routine, falling multiple times and exiting in tears. Valieva was a picture of utter desolation, received coldly by her main coach, the fearsome Eteri Tutberidze.

Russian skaters are accustomed to dominating European and world events, often making a clean sweep of the medals. The two Russian teenagers who ultimately took Olympic gold and silver belong to the same Sambo-70 club in Moscow as Valieva. But the silver medallist, seventeen-year-old Alexandra Trusova, now says she hates the sport and “will never skate again.” There’s no way in a million years, let alone fifteen, that Valieva made her own decision and chose to take performance-enhancing drugs. But one was in her system as part of a cocktail of three – two of which are not banned. Does this win-at-any-cost policy sound familiar? Another Russian tragedy? Perhaps these girls should give up skating and form a band – the Ice Girls? At least in music you don’t get banned when you get busted.

Robert Rigby is a journalist, author and scriptwriter. His sport-themed fiction includes the novelisations of the “Goal!” movies and the four official London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics novels for children

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