Editorial: Expelling drug cheats vital for sports' integrity

Herald reporter Steve Deane's easy access to peptides shows just how tempting it can be for athletes to resort to such aids to get a boost

Deane's exercise, done on his own initiative, shows how little the agencies and innocent athletes might know. Photo / Greg Bowker
Deane's exercise, done on his own initiative, shows how little the agencies and innocent athletes might know. Photo / Greg Bowker

Herald writer Steve Deane's reports this week on his personal experiment of peptides provided an insight to the effects of a performance-enhancing drug, as well as the ease with which they can be acquired and the scarcity of testing facilities. The last is the most surprising.

Peptides are just the latest substance to infect sports, at least in Australia where they were brought to public notice by an Australian Crime Commission report in February.

Here, we are not so sure. The report prompted New Zealand Government sports funding agencies to ask athletes, officials and medical staff in this country whether there was a similar problem here and none thought there was.

But Deane's exercise, done on his own initiative, shows how little the agencies and innocent athletes might know. First, he was able to order vials of the peptide online and took legal advice to ensure he could import it.

Classed as new medicine it is illegal to sell it here, or conduct clinical trials without a permit, but not to buy it for personal use.

Secondly, its use is not obvious. He took the drug in the course of a rigorous diet and exercise regime that could explain any improvements in physique. Indeed, he found the drug was mainly a recovery aid, which makes it no less performance enhancing. Rapid recovery of strained tissue is an obvious benefit to training and body building.

Lastly, he was not screened even though he asked to be. His hopes of testing the tests were dashed because the World Anti-Doping Agency does not test private individuals and it seems there is no laboratory in this part of the world equipped to detect the peptide he was taking.

The temptation for high-performance sportsmen and women to use these sort of training aids must be immense, particularly if they suspect rivals are doing so.

They might even convince themselves they are not cheating since the drug is not directly contributing to their strength, speed or endurance, it merely enables their muscles to recover so that they can do more of the hard work.

It is sometimes argued that these concoctions are no worse than a dietary supplement.

What in principle is the difference between a peptide and vitamin pill? One is that the safety of peptides has not been medically established and sport places particular pressure on serious competitors to ignore that warning.

But the main reason these drugs are banned is that sport is necessarily based on arbitrary rules.

Every sport restricts some perfectly natural physical action to help make it the sport it is. Soccer forbids handling the ball, rugby does not allow a forward pass, cricket insists the ball is bowled, not thrown.

Any player who breaks these rules takes an unfair advantage.

Drugs are in the same category. Substances such as steroids and peptides may be acceptable for cosmetic or other private uses but they are not acceptable in sport. Its appeal lies in human contests, fans do not like the idea that the winners may be those who have injected themselves with the most advantageous cocktail of chemicals.

It does not require governments to crack down on sports drugs. Sport has every reason to do so itself, for it will not forever retain its appeal unless it can banish the cheats.

- NZ Herald

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