The advances in chemistry are there to aid – and perhaps it was this thinking that started blurring the lines for those who drive the beast known as professional sport…
When Lance Armstrong admitted to the world the extent of doping in his cycling career, the world seemed to almost slip off it’s axis. Sports fans the world over were appalled and shocked at the depth of his betrayal. Armstrong was instantly and very publicly ostracised, and rightly so.
The sporting community at large watched in disbelief as the story unfolded to the extent, and apparent ease, these performance enhancing drugs were both distributed and accepted as part of the professional cycling scene.
Armstrong’s crafted response to those who questioned his sporting success including his 7 Tour de France wins was vague, weakly apologetic and even at times narcissistic. Armstrong appeared to be unsure as to why the world was even questioning his use of performance enhancers at that level.
What the Armstrong case has shown us is just how much our athletes are revered and placed on a moral pedestal by their adoring fans and how naive most of us are at what really goes on at that level.
This week, Australia faces its own Armstrong crisis with a damming report released into the extensive and prolonged substance abuse culture in Australian professional sport. The report released by the Australian Government and integrity agencies focused on the elite sporting community and eluded to a much deeper and systemic problem.
According to the official report the culture of elicit drug use, performance enhancement drugs, human growth hormones, peptides, blood transfusions – even the use of drugs that have yet to be approved for humans – is widespread amongst many of the major sporting codes.
The report points the finger squarely at the coaches, managers and the sports science support staff and put them in bed with organised crime by the acknowledgment that this issue was underpinned by multiple organised crime syndicates and administered from within the sports’ own management structure.
This report makes the Lance Armstrong case look, well quite honestly, amateur.
For those of us who already move in the professional sporting arena, this is not a breaking story. For many of us it is more bewilderment as to why it has taken this long to be exposed.
Back in the 80s, competing in an enviroment where the performance enhancing substances of choice were far more rudimentary and primarily limited to anabolic steroids, the playing field was never going to be a level one.
I was a clean athlete (as was the majority of my team) and never entered the slippery slope of taking banned substances.
I can still remember turning up at some international events and by merely looking at the physique, incredible levels of strength and the skills being performed realised some of the competitors were on the juice.
Today as a professional Mind Coach whose job is to help elite and professional athletes to perform better, faster and more reliably, I am very aware that the playing field is even less level today than in the 80s.
On the surface, the use of mental, physical and cognitive techniques to stimulate performance; the use of language patterns, hypnosis, psychology, neural patterning to lower anxiety, manage emotions, build behavioural structure, accountability and the such like may look a little out of its league!
But they work and they work well…
Lets be honest, the physical demands on athletes today is astronomical, not only is asked more of them physically, they are asked to back up and do it all again, playing more frequently.
The advances in chemistry are there to aid – and perhaps it was this thinking that started blurring the lines for those who drive the beast known as professional sport.
Performing better is only part of the appeal, the ability to sustain longer training hours, recover from injury faster, be less prone to fatigue and to require less down time makes financial sense both for the athlete and the club.
So as you read this, you may be thinking – I get why they would turn to the chemical enhancement. But there is much more to this story than just helping an athlete run faster, jump higher or lift more.
As with most things, supply is driven by demand. If there was no demand there would be little need for a supply. As the industry of professional sport grows so does the need to have bigger, better, stronger athletes – athletes who will back up game after game, are marketable and drive the fans to spend more.
The clubs, even the codes, bottom line is in someway dependent upon the products: the athletes.
And of course innovation drives sophistication of avoiding detection. There appears to be more investment in designing these drugs than in the sporting codes building the systems to stop them..
So what drives this undesirable element in our sport?
How does the seedy world manage to get its hooks into our young up and coming stars?
What are the real alternatives to doping in the multi billion dollar industry that is sport?
I am frequently asked my opinion on the use of chemicals as performance enhancers by coaches, athletes and commentators – as I am very vocal with my beliefs on externally added drugs and their place in sport.
For me it’s simple – there really isn’t any need!
There is no need to place ourselves in potentially fatal danger by injecting chemical stimulants into our athletes, nor do I believe it’s in the spirit of sport or competition… it’s just not cricket!
…or football …or athletics …or swimming
…you get the picture.
For me the risks far outweigh the benefits.
Mind you, this comes from someone who wholeheartedly believes we have the same capabilities sitting between our ears – natural potentiality, untapped and free.
I believe many factors contributed to the evolution of this apparent systemic cheating culture gripping certain aspects of our global sporting community. From simple accessibility, to obvious shifts in society standards, to internally and externally placed pressure, the change in the dynamics of an athletes career and also none less guilty than the unbelievable (somewhat stupid and unbalanced) money that can be made in professional sport today.
Until only recently athletes were, for the vast majority, amateurs – part-timers. They were students, or held down jobs and trained wherever and whenever they could.
The shift to full-time athlete has seen a dramatic spike in what athletes could achieve as they dedicated their lives to their sport. We probably wouldn’t have the Ennis’ or the Phelps’ or the Woods’ of the world if they also worked in the local factory.
However this shift is not only on an athlete’s focus, but also their accountability. When an athlete had a career other than their sport, it gave them some external stability, a safety net, something that if they became injured, dropped or retired they could turn to. After all, they were never going to be millionaires as amateurs anyway.
When your whole future is based on what goes on on the field, there is a huge expectation to stay fit, to stay healthy, to be on top, to perform, to get results over and above your desire to be the best athlete you can.
This expectation can lean to an athlete feeling vulnerable and willing to take something to help them back up from a tough game. Their priority could become focussed on sustaining the results that are linked to their potential to earn, to make the selection, to create longevity and become even more marketable.
This is not a justification, rather, a rationalisation in their minds. Most of these athletes who do cheat do so with a sound reasoning – or so they think. This is why I believe the problem isn’t the athletes alone. It is a result of the process, the culture, the machine that is sport.
Many of these same athletes have lifestyles they would not have without their sporting success and notoriety. They are given access to a world of opportunity, privilege, fame and infamousy… and often with a pocket full of cash.
For some this can often lead to exposure to the elicit drug scene with the means to explore. The recreational drug world is dark, murky and powerful and for these highly stimulated, vulnerable and adrenaline driven youngsters with time, means and exposure could be an attractive proposition.
Statistically, if we look at where the vast majority of doping issues occur it is in the more lucrative and publicly passionate sports. The sports where the athletes on the field can mean the difference between a full stadium, a multi million dollar sponsor, a TV deal or even survival of the club. So if you control the product (the athlete) you control the outcome, the result, the dollar.
As I said this is by no means a justification to those who choose to cheat, it is the environment that has supported their cheating tendencies, their look for the easier ride to fame, fortune and success.
So what are the alternatives to doping, to injecting yourself with human growth hormones, to having blood transfusions of laced calfs blood, to selling your soul to the underworld?
Well in my world, the alternative is where the same highs, the same controls, the same stimulants, the same replicability can be achieved naturally, clean and legally. It can be learnt, applied and cultivated without fear of being caught, getting a criminal record or dying.
Those same chemically induced outcomes can be triggered within the human brain. Studies have shown you can release specific chemicals in your brain that give you just as much increased resilience, strength and recovery capabilities as the synthetic versions.
Of course I recognise and acknowledge my way is harder work…
It takes more commitment, more time, more knowledge, more personal investment than just flooding your body with peptides and laced calf blood.
However stimulating our brain has far less repercussions. The legal repercussions of the current report on the drug cheats are yet to play out in the public and official courts. What I am referring to is the physical and psychological repercussions of some of these drugs.
Increased likelihood of heart problems, higher rates of strokes, of blood disorders, kidney failure, liver failure, sight issues, brain damage, bone deterioration and impotency to name a few.
And then there is the psychological effects of these drugs, ranging from increased rates of schizophrenia, depression, bipolar, emotional irrationality, psychosis and much more. And these are only from those we know the risks to.
Mind Coaching isn’t just for the now, it’s not going to dissipate out of your body when you stop using it, leaving you a broken shell. Mental stimulation and cognitive conditioning is a skill-set that stays with you forever.
Irrespective of how the Australian government handles this current crisis, the use of illegal substances won’t go away. What you as an athlete choose to do is the only way to send a message to those who prey on the young up and coming athlete.