07:12am Monday 21 October 2019

Widespread illicit drug use no surprise in win-at-all costs ‘game’

Julie Tullberg

Drugs in sport will continue to tarnish the reputation of sporting groups and their athletes – such is their desire to be the best. The Lance Armstrong scandal has been a classic case. The consequences are lethal to sporting careers and reveal human failings that reflect the deadly sins – greed and pride. 

We havee seen former Australian cyclists Matt White and Stephen Hodge dragged into the tour mess and they were promptly sacked. Are they scapegoats of an elaborate, complex plot that touched most riders of the cycling tour? 

Something is rotten in the footy codes and this is a crisis. What percentage of footballers are playing on injections? And how often has organised crime infiltrated our sports in a bid to control results?

While sports scientists explore better ways to find the edge in sports performance, the reality is that drug use is an option to help athletes recover, and stimulate the growth and recovery of muscles for more power and sustained effort. There is no doubt that boundaries are pushed – all the time.

There will always be a temptation for sports managers – and athletes – to cut corners and this has been proven time and time again. While the Essendon drugs investigation has rocked the AFL and Australian sport, it highlights that Australian fans expect a clean contest.

Australian athletes take great pride in competing with integrity, after a long period of hard work, toughness and careful skill development. But how many are athletes blind to illegal practices? How many are being injected illegally or taking substances orally without their knowledge?

We have seen many success stories at international-level sport, plus AFL, where athletes have shown an amazing level of work ethic to achieve great results. There are clean Australian athletes – I know that for sure, during my time working in sports science and journalism.

Australians deplore cheating. In fact, fans are critical of elite athletes when they are proven to be drug cheats. This has infuriated clean Aussies at Olympic and world championship level, who have been vocal opponents of drug cheats while they toil for a taste of glory through legitimate methods.

But the sad reality is drugs have become part-and-parcel of sport because of the status (and the waiting gold pot) of winning. It is no surprise that drugs, used for hormone replacement and to improve recovery and soreness, have been used in the AFL. Why? 

Try running half a marathon every week on the footy field, while getting knocked from pillar to post, and then getting up again each week, displaying flashes of brilliance. It’s what is expected of these athletes who play the most demanding sport in the world.

The physical and mental strain these footballers carry is something that spectators don’t fathom – only if they walk in their shoes. The mental and physical trauma of elite sport is hidden and this is why the issues become major problems. Ask any broken AFL player how tough it is – and he will reveal the depth of his pain. It’s no surprise that illicit drug use is widespread in our own backyard.

Julie Tullberg is a PhD candidate and teaches sports journalism at Monash University.

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