Sport in Australia is in crisis. And it is a crisis of its own making. Everywhere you look sporting codes and athletes are in trouble with drugs—in the AFL, cycling, the NRL and swimming.

The constant push to be the “best”, coupled with the increasingly big business that professional sport is, has fuelled this drugs in sport crisis.

The exposure last October of Lance Armstrong’s years of drug use in cycling quickly spilt over into Australian cycling.

Australian Matt White admitted to his own drug use while riding on Armstrong’s cycling team. But his confession last year raised wider questions about drug use among Australian cyclists, since he was the national coach of Australian cycling until the news broke.

Drugs scandals have rocked sport - but it's all part of a competitive game

This has been followed by the Australian Crime Commission report detailing the use of drugs and links to organised crime among AFL teams including Essendon, as well as NRL teams Cronulla and Penrith, that have rocked the codes.

And revelations continue to emerge. The use of horse steroids at Cronulla and possible drug use at the Manly Sea Eagles are the latest twists.

The likely solution presented will be to punish individual offenders, and label them “bad apples”, so that the clubs and teams can survive. This despite the fact the clubs and teams themselves have run and sanctioned drug-taking programs.

The AFL is toying with the idea of an “integrity officer” for every one of its 18 clubs.

Competition

But no matter how tightly regulations are applied, drug use and contemporary sport will continue go hand in hand. Far from some pure expression of human strength and endurance, sport under capitalism is distorted into an alienated form.

There is documented evidence of ball games, racket games and athletic games that date well before industrial capitalism. However they are unrecognisable from today’s sports. Modern sport is all about­ trying to be first, beating an opponent or doing better than others by setting a new record. It reflects the inherent capitalist values of competition and winning at all costs.

In the last half century, sport itself has morphed into a multi-billion dollar business. As part of increasing corporatisation, the AFL gets 7 per cent of the sportsbet agencies profits, and allows the games to be saturated with gambling ads in return.

The teenagers who become professional footballers are not necessarily the “best” or most talented players.

They are often those most prepared to accept the tight discipline and intensive training demanded of them and distort their bodies in the process. Drug use is a common temptation as athletes look to push beyond natural, physical limits.

In some fields, like cycling and athletics, some suspect that taking drugs may even be necessary to win, so widespread is drug use.

There have been allegations of doping in the Tour de France since the race began in 1903. Early Tour riders consumed alcohol and used ether, among other substances, as a means of dulling the pain of competing in endurance cycling.

Professional cycling teams demand quick recoveries and improved performances. Failure means contracts will not be renewed.

There is only a fine line between the acceptable forms of punishing the body through pain killers and the intense training required by professional sport, and the use of drugs to get that “winning edge”.

Swimmer James Magnussen and his 4 x 100m freestyle team-mates used the drug Stilnox for  “bonding sessions”. This was part of dealing with the “enormous pressure” the 21- year-old said he felt to perform at the Olympics.

AFL players routinely feel they need something to help them “get up” for the next game week after week, then after the game need “something” to help them relax and unwind. Former Eagles’ star Ben Cousins, who ended up in and out of hospital with drug addiction, is one example of where this can lead.

For millions of people sport provides an escape from the reality of everyday life. It provides something they can identify with, whether a team or an individual, in a world in which we are increasingly isolated.

But the fact that it can be so awash with substances that ultimately destroy players’ bodies shows just how much capitalist competition distorts and degrades every aspect of our lives.

Tom Orsag

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