It is currently the height of the sporting summer. The first Ashes Test. The Tour de France. And Wimbledon, which some people associate with strawberries and cream, and which I associate with doping.
It is a source of curiosity to me that when I come across tennis on TV, I always end up watching rather than switching the channel, at least for a few minutes. As fraudulent as the players may be, and as complicit as the commentators are, I cannot help but be drawn in by the drama, which is gripping. I do not care for Professional Wrestling, but I imagine aficionados of that interact with it in the same way. We know it is not real. We know it is a lie. But, for the sake of entertainment, we get drawn in and indulge ourselves.
Tennis has (apologies) an ace up its sleeve in this regard. The genius of tennis lies not in the players, but in the game itself. Five vertical lines, four horizontal lines, a net, and the greatest scoring system in sport. Describing it as a sport might be disingenuous, but as entertainment it is unparalleled, and it is massively successful. This dichotomy, the fact that tennis can be both an utter fraud and staggeringly successful raises questions about the only other sport (or “sport”) that can beat it for worldwide appeal and the concurrent riches.
Is football as infected by doping? What does that mean for the way we interact with football? Will a crash come, as it did in cycling? If so, when? What will the effect be?
For starters, because there will doubtless be some idiots in the audience, I feel I should establish that doping must be fought. The “anything goes” policy advocated by some incorrigibles would be reprehensible for many reasons, but two in particular stand out.
Firstly, not all drugs are equal. As has been proven many times, sport cannot be separated from the societies from which it comes. Rich countries do better at sport. What doping does is load the dice even further. A player or team from a poor country does not have access to the kinds of drugs that are as effective as those of their richer rivals. Thus doping turns the probable success of the rich into a cast-iron guarantee. Such imbalance runs counter to the very essence of sport.
Secondly, it is absurdly dangerous. In a fair competition between two rivals, one might get exhausted, run themselves into the ground and still lose. But they will probably go home. The chances of them dying or getting seriously injured are linked only to the inherent dangers associated with the sport itself. With doping, either the drugs themselves can do serious damage, or they can push a body beyond its capabilities, sometimes fatally.
The question of how we evaluate the prevalence of doping in football itself is complicated, not least because it sets us off down so many paths. There exists both concrete evidence and also instances where, as is so common in tennis, there is such a vast weight of circumstantial evidence that guilt must be the presumption. The majority of these cases are well known. The fact that such a staggeringly small number of players are ever caught doping (and, of those, so few ever serve bans) thus becomes evidence for the prosecution, not for the defence.
More generally, football should invite the same scepticism that other sports are subjected to. In cycling, no-one genuinely believes a mere switch in diet can turn a one day competitor into a Grand Tour GC contender in 12 months. In tennis, if a player hires a new coach late in his career and suddenly starts playing harder, faster and more consistently, that is understood for the deception that it is. In football by contrast, we fail to view radical improvements in performance in such a manner. The new tactical system is working. The new coach has got inside the players’ heads, not their veins. Even when the story is specifically about a new fitness coach, which should set off all sorts of alarm bells, the default setting is not one of disbelief or outright anger.
More long term trends are also seen under a benign gaze. We know, for instance, that the two original exponents of total football needed amphetamines. Despite all the improvements in diet, conditioning and training in the decades since then, the radical styles that are increasingly prevalent in modern club football should still be inviting questions. It is perfectly legitimate to ask whether pressing football is even possible without pharmacological assistance. Yet the attitude required to ask such a question is almost never encountered.
When Marcelo Bielsa takes charge at a new club and the players are suddenly transformed, people talk about his video collection and touchline idiosyncrasies. At international tournaments, where so many players seem to be running on empty, the explanation given is that the players are tired at the end of a long season, not the fact that they are suddenly without their club or personal doctors. I am not saying that Marcelo Bielsa dopes his players. I am not saying that the slower pace of football at international level is down to the fact that he players suddenly no longer have access to the same drugs. My point is simply that no-one even asks these questions. Occurrences that would provoke outrage or at least a raised eyebrow in any other sport, even tennis, are just accepted as truth.
At this point the role of the media, especially TV, becomes problematic. TV pays the bills, so the clubs grant them access, and the balance of power would appear to lie with the people behind the camera, not in front of it. But these TV executives have paid a fortune for football, and they have to recoup their investment. Asking difficult questions, even ones as obviously legitimate as those about doping, is simply not part of the equation; the validity of their product cannot be disputed. The commentators duly oblige. Thus the vast majority of fans interact with the sport via a medium that sees no evil, hears no evil and speaks no evil, which is not exactly conducive to the development of a sceptical mindset.
We saw this in cycling. Many print journalists laughed out loud when Lance Armstrong attacked on the climb to Sestriere in 1999, so obvious was it that the American was juiced to the gills. But only a handful ever aired their doubts, and only one had the heart to keep chasing come what may. The TV coverage, more widely disseminated than any of David Walsh’s output, adopted a tone that could at best be described as reverential, at worst sycophantic. And this was a year after Festina. The omertà, within the peloton and without, was still firmly in place.
TV coverage of tennis is similar. It is farcical enough to watch players engage in high intensity sprints with no lapse in hand-eye co-ordination nor any loss of speed after matches of five or six hours, matches at the end of two-week long tournaments, tournaments in the middle of a gruelling season. But to hear the commentators fawning over their winter training regimens and special diets? Perhaps only boxing shows such open disdain for the intelligence of its audience, those who via their TV subscriptions pay for the whole thing in the first place.
For the moment, that audience happily parts with its cash. But neither tennis nor football has had a Festina yet. A video here (Parma), an ex-pro’s autobiography there (Cascarino), and an absolute mountain of circumstantial evidence is one thing. But we have yet to have hotel rooms raided or current players caught in the act. What cycling shows us is that such a moment will come.
Neither the UCI (by choice) nor the anti-doping organisations (by circumstance) were doing enough about doping in cycling, but as drugs proliferate through a sport, the probability of it crossing paths with the law approaches 1. Festina subsequently popularised, for want of a better word, the sceptical attitude that these days is required to interact with sport honestly. One effect of an unknown customs official opening the trunk of a car in 1998 was that over a decade later Lance Armstrong, who had acquired a position of seemingly total control and dominance over his story, could still fall, because enough people had the mindset and critical approach required to know that, deep down, that story was a lie.
What we do not yet know is what the long term consequences of the Festina and Armstrong cases will be for cycling in general. A generation of future cyclists is growing up seeing the Achilles of their sport being tarred and feathered. Will they still want to go into professional cycling? If they do, will their attitude to doping change given the level of hatred they now know such actions may attract? For the sport itself, will participation numbers and viewing figures fluctuate, and if they do what effect will this have on sponsorship and TV money? These are questions that will take at least fifteen years to answer. But the answers will be instructive for tennis, which is very likely to be the next major sport after athletics, cycling and baseball to have its image and legends dragged through the mud in the most public way possible. Subsequently, the way tennis deals with the fall out of its own inevitable scandal will be instructive for football.
How the administrators, players, and sponsors react will be of serious significance for football’s future. More than anything, the fan reaction will be crucial. It could be that the game is abandoned en masse, with no-one willing to put up with such a charade. That would be bad. But the outcome might be even worse. They might decide, en masse, that sportspeople sticking needles in their arms and having extra blood and hormones fed into them is just fine. They want to be entertained, the players need these products to play to the level to which the fans are accustomed, so… well, so be it.
It is too awful to contemplate.