Any time a sport becomes embroiled in a doping scandal, as athletics now finds itself in after the publication of a report that implicated Russia in engaging in government-level doping of its athletes, the spotlight often falls on other sports to show that they have no such issues.
Football is no different, and Arsène Wenger was asked about the issue. He said, “I can’t accept it and I always was a believer that there’s a lot of cheating going on in our game and that we are not strong enough with what happens, nor with the doping, nor with the corruption of the referees, nor with the match fixing. It’s time that we tackle this problem in a very serious way and that people who cheat are punished in a very severe way.”
Strong words, I’m sure you’ll agree. There are, however, a couple of crucial problems that doping in sport, both in football and elsewhere, has always had. Any time someone is found guilty of doping, the same arguments are wheeled out to admonish the culprit. They’ve ‘tarnished the sport’s integrity’, ‘cheated others out of their rightful glory’, ‘robbed fans of a proper contest by breaking the rules’, and so on. All the blame is put at the feet of the person who put something into their body to assist their physical performance, in attempt to single them out as an outlier.
It’s this attitude to doping that highlights just what is wrong. It’s not that a player taking an ‘illegal’ supplement is an inherent danger to the integrity of a sport we love, it’s only an inherent danger to the perception of that same sport. This is why the backlash to a doping offense is so strong, yet the measures put in to prevent players from doping are so lax. We like to say we care, but don’t bother to actually do something about it.
Exhibit A: the above quote from Arsene Wenger. It’s not taken from his interview given to L’Equipe earlier this week, but from 2013. Back then, we reacted just like we reacted to his more recent remarks, when he said that he had played against many teams that had been doping, with shock and dismay. Was anything done to investigate these claims? No. Were wide-ranging measures to test players implemented in order to catch those who may have been doping? No.
Every so often, governing bodies like FIFA or the FA will announce a new ‘crackdown’ on doping, saying that they’re testing both the blood and urine of players for whatever new drug is being labelled as the one most at risk of skewing a competition artificially, i.e EPO. Yet in the 2014-2015 season, the FA took 2286 samples from players. In isolation, that sounds like a large number, but a quick bit of math on the back of an envelope shows the true extent of their ‘testing’.
There are 92 clubs in England’s top four leagues. Let’s say that each club has a first team squad comprising of 23 players.
92 x 23 = 2116.
2286 samples in a season ÷ 2116 players = 1.08 samples per player per season.
In other words, to ‘crackdown’ on doping, the FA will, on average, test a player once per season. You don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to realise that this is an extremely lax system. It goes some way to explaining why the FA were so keen to ban Rio Ferdinand for a year back in 2003 for merely missing a test, it wasn’t that they thought he was doping, it was that they knew they wouldn’t have been able to test him again for a significant period are were keen not to give others the same escape route.
But it’s not just the testing procedures that are lacking. Even the potential punishments that can be incurred by a player and their club if found to be doping are ridiculously lenient.
In 2014, Legia Warsaw were thrown out of the Champions League after bringing on an ineligible player with four minutes to go in the second leg of a a qualifier that they were winning 6-1 on aggregate at the time. He was ineligible because he had one game left to serve of a three-match ban, which Legia thought he had already served but hadn’t due to an administrative error.
In September 2015, Dinamo Zagreb fielded a player who subsequently failed a drug test after a 2-1 victory over Arsenal. That player was on the field for the duration of the game. His effect on the game was vastly greater than the Legia player who came on during their qualifier, so the punishment should reflect that. Right?
According to UEFA, ‘Only in the case of more than two players from the same team having been found to have committed a doping violation in the same competition are team sanctions imposed.’ So the result stood. This means that you can have two players with ‘illegal’ substances in them playing in a game, and the result isn’t tainted, but if the club secretary fills in the wrong form with the wrong name then the result cannot be allowed to stand. It’s a farce.
It’s examples like this that show just how little that sporting’s governing bodies care about the issue of doping and the potential harm taking steroids can do to a player, and how much they care about the perception that their sport is ‘clean’.
If FIFA was concerned about the health of its players, it would do more to stop the use of all supplements, not just those on a ‘banned’ list. Taking a steroid to improve strength is in essence no different to taking a caffeine tablet before a game to improve energy levels. The former is banned, the latter is commonplace. Why the distinction?
If UEFA was concerned about players having an artificial competitive advantage from taking a banned supplement, then why are some clubs allowed an artificial financial advantage over others? Is there a difference between having the ability to medically improve a player and having the ability to buy someone vastly superior? No.
If the FA was concerned about fans not wanting to watch a game featuring players who are taking drugs to become better athletes, ask any Arsenal fans right now if they would be in favour of players taking drugs that are readily available to the rest of us to help us recover from illness and injury sooner, and you won’t find many who say that they disagree.
For too long, the attitude towards a player taking a drug to improve his or her performance has been one of disdain, apathy and ignorance. We either need to devote the necessary funding that would pay for universal testing across the board, 24-hour availability and routine, scheduled testing of players, or we have to accept that a player taking a steroid him to help him run faster for longer is merely the natural progression of a sport that has always looked for an edge over its rivals.