The moral indictment of Russia for its entrenched state-sponsored sports doping programme was startling because of its form rather than substance, given the long-held suspicion of institutionalised cheating condoned at the highest levels in various places. In Russia, even the secret service was deployed to ensure cover-ups at drug-testing labs, and top athletes adopted fake identities to elude unexpected testing. Other countries like Kenya are also under a cloud.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) could face suspension from the Olympics when the World Anti-Doping Agency releases the next part of an investigative report by its independent commissioners. Ironically, it was the IAAF that was the first international sport federation to ban doping in 1928. That's how long lip service has been paid to tackling this scourge, despite the signing of the Unesco anti-doping convention by many states. Given the widespread abuse, technicalities of detection and high costs involved, some feel the issue should be viewed altogether differently.
Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell argues for "complete liberalisation and complete transparency" as the days of innocence are over and vast machinery is being deployed to enhance performance - the best nutrition, training, equipment, technology, health and financial support. Few would accept standardising these factors for the sake of a level playing field. When there's nothing fair about elite sports anyway, why shouldn't approved drugs be allowed (in the same way as laser surgery for eyesight and ligament replacement for knees)? In a similar vein, a London Telegraph commentator believes there should be some room for safe doping to "make sport more entertaining and more honest". Furthermore, the definition of doping is arbitrary in requiring a method or substance to meet at least two of three ambiguous criteria: having performance-enhancing effects, posing a health risk or going against the spirit of sport. In Victorian England, just training was considered cheating and against the spirit of sport. Having performance-enhancing effects, it would fall foul of today's rules. Hence, should a laissez-faire approach be adopted to keep up with the times?
This should be rejected not just because it undermines the cherished ideals of sport. Insidious harm is created when top sportsmen and the powerful connive to game the system and everyone else becomes an also-ran. Public cynicism, especially among the young, will only grow worse. It is already running deep as the rich get richer, celebrities dodge taxes, those advantaged cling to privileges, and bankers rig markets. Sport has always stood for fairness and high standards. One should not lower the bar simply because Russians and others are sneaking under it.