Testing times

Drug taking may be a problem in English football, but Tim Springett wouldn't recommend random testing

A further wave of revelations of professional footballers in England testing positive for drugs is, predictably, leading to a clamour for the football authorities to get tough on drug use and follow the example set by the International Amateur Athletics Federation. It is to be hoped that, instead, the FA and their international counterparts learn from the IAAF’s mistakes.

“Global testing in soccer is not yet as comprehensive as it was in athletics in 1975,” screamed the Daily Mail in response to the positive test results of Barnsley’s Dean Jones and Shane Nicholson of West Brom (the latter later cleared after it was accepted that his drink had been spiked). In fact this is more of a problem for athletics than for football.

It is important to ignore the knee-jerk reactions of those who, it seems, will not be satisfied until every club has had a first-team regular banned. There are really two reasons for carrying out drug tests on sports people: to safeguard their health and to prevent them from gaining an unfair advantage. Both perfectly reasonable. But as soon as the desire to reveal names of ‘cheats’ takes over, these objectives are lost and common-sense goes out the window.

There are many substances which, if consumed, might make a footballer play better – including food and water. It is clearly neither practical nor desirable to prohibit all of them. Indeed, one plausible response to the proliferation of the use of scientifically-created performance enhancers would be to do nothing and let it happen – eventually all players would use them if they wished and nobody would gain an unfair advantage over anybody else.

Of course the world is not so simple – amphetamines and other stimulants have been shown to cause long-term damage to health. The first sports people to be tested for banned substances were cyclists, some of whom were believed to be using strychnine as a performance enhancer during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the short term strychnine improved cyclists’ endurance, but it also increased the risk of strokes, which resulted in the deaths of half a dozen competitors. Concentrating on substances which had the potential to cause harm to the taker was eminently sensible.

However, when the IAAF got involved, the definition of what was a banned substance was extended well beyond performance enhancers and substances with harmful side-effects. Just about anything which fitted the description ‘drug’ was forbidden and any person found to have consumed such a thing was summarily banned from competition. The upshot is that many athletes are frightened even to take aspirins and paracetamols for a cold or a headache. This looks rather like a sign that things have gone too far.

The IAAF and those who champion their methods will point to ‘successes’, such as the discovery that Ben Johnson took performance enhancers prior to the 1988 Olympics. But on the other side of the coin is the case of Diane Modahl. Her heroic struggle to clear her name succeeded but does not seem to have represented what it should have done – the catalyst for a major re-think of the sport’s draconian policies.

If the football authorities are to follow the IAAF’s lead, one can only wonder who football’s first Diane Modahl will be.

A further case history which ought to have the effect of concentrating minds is that of the US swimmer Jessica Foschi. After she tested positive for a prohibited steroid she was banned from competition for two years by American swimming’s governing body in February 1996. However, her supporters have claimed is that the only way that Foschi could have taken the drug was through an act of sabotage, something which is almost impossible to prove or disprove. Court action is pending and it is thought likely that the court will quash the ban in the absence of proof of wilfulness. In other words, in order to ban an athlete for the act of demonstrating chemical performance enhancement, a national governing body will have to prove that an athlete willingly and knowingly used the drug that was detected.

The possibility, or perhaps probability, that highly-paid sports stars will take court action to contest summary penalties meted out by sports authorities means that the already high costs of testing players will multiply once legal bills are added. Furthermore, whilst Jessica Foschi waits for her case to be heard, she must serve a ban which has already caused her to miss the 1996 Olympics.

There are two lessons to be learned. Firstly, that random testing is no answer, especially since the list of prohibited substances has itself become so random. Attention should be focused on the admittedly extensive list of drugs which are potentially dangerous and not generally obtainable.

Secondly, that education and rehabilitation are the key to the elimination of drug misuse among footballers. The health of the game depends on the health of its players rather more than the hacks’ bloodlust. 

From WSC 131 January 1998. What was happening this month