08/08/08 Wanting To Believe In Sport

One sporting commentator after another is having obligatory doubts about the cavalcade of olympic superlatives of the last week. Not about the legality of the performances, but about sport itself as a form of drama.
Any columnist worth their ticket agonising about whether they actually enjoyed what they saw, or whether the experience was fatally tainted by the background echo of drugs. Was this almost superhuman display of speed and strength an authentic sporting achievement, or merely another disillusionment in waiting, like so many Olympic glories of the past 20 years? Is it even now possible to appreciate sport in the same way it once was? Is sport dead? At least, until there is some guarantee of authenticity.

The climax was the Jamaican track team’s performance on sunday. Usain Bolt’s contemptuous ‘I Am The Greatest’ before he’d even crossed the line, followed by the women’s clean sweep of the medals in their 100m event were, sadly, almost unbelievable. And we want to believe. In sport, we have to believe. That is the point, the outcome must be fair. And in athletics, this is reduced to a simple matter of mathematics. Fastest, furthest, highest. This clarity is one thing which seperates it from fictional drama. Without genuine achievements and a result which can be trusted, sport doesn’t exist. It fails to create the right chemistry in the viewer, and is reduced to a staged tableau. A cheap display of freaks and masochists.

After the hideous damage to the lives of the users, the worst damage of drugs in sport is their destruction of the bond of faith between performance and audience. The cynicism and doubt which every event now faces. And it doesn’t matter if, as with Usain Bolt, he looks nothing like a Ben Johnson knucklehead on crack. Or even if the winner is as obviously innocent as the lovely Shelley-Ann Fraser, claiming after her race that

“Yam, banana and dumpling make top three!”

There will always now be a splinter of doubt digging into what should be a moment of joyful identification with a human being achieving something they want more than anything else in the world. The essential sympathy between ‘player’ and audience is destroyed, or cut short at best. It is not possible to feel sympathy with a cheat. And the prevalence of drugs makes everyone a possible cheat. Everyone is guilty until found innocent, which is not very sporting.

The victory today of Christine Ohuruogu was a very ambiguous experience. Giving the benefit of the doubt, it was a great personal achievement. Her 1 year ban and victorious appeal were hardly a perfect build-up. And she is now legally free to perform. But she is an exception, The truth is that by allowing the cheat to benefit more from the same amount of training as the athlete, it is of as much use in preventing injury and strees as it is in inducing more intense muscle activity.
Also, the enhanced performances achieved by cheating ‘stay in the legs’, as the athletes put it. So during the period the undetected cheat is in competition, he is setting the standard for the genuine athletes and forcing them to train harder than they might otherwise, causing injury and poisoning the competition. Like a rhodedondron bush poisoning the ground beneath it.
A temporary ban is therefore a puny punishment for the network of suffering caused by drug use in sport. It is almost something a businesslike cheat could budget for, or get someone else to budget for them.

If drugs do win the damage will be even more wide ranging. Until now, sport provided a useful antidote to the need to believe in Father Xmas. Somedays your team won, somedays it lost. That’s life. But if the winners in sport are not really the winners, to enjoy the spectacle we have to use a lot of wish-fulfillment. Those nice hardworking supermen and women deserve their glory because we believe they do. The world is nice because I believe it’s nice. All is perfect, C21st, Confucian Harmony. As the games come to a close, we go back to the unrelenting theme of the opening ceremony in a huge pretentious cosmic circle.
Not the most progressive of political symbols.
Beijing Olympics 2008

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