The Long Game – The Coming Drugs Crash

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.



Read all about it

Is it possible to follow a sport without watching it? In the current climate this might seem a strange question. The Premier League recently signed a new TV contract, the size of which stretches the boundaries of credibility. Players, clubs, leagues, even entire sports are beholden to the whims of the TV market. TV has decreed that the average Premier League player earn more than his Serie A counterpart, just as it has decreed that fewer snooker players can earn a living from that sport than was the case in the 1990s. As for me, I have spent many a weekend hunched over my computer watching pixelated feeds from matches from France, and I am frustrated that I do not have as much free time to do this as I did in the past.

Yet the majority of my interaction with football has not been via the moving image, but via the written word. I have been watching football matches for as long as I can remember. But the amount of time spent watching matches take place is nothing compared to the amount of time spent reading about the game and writing about it. This is, in fact, entirely logical. Football is the most popular sport on earth because it means so much more than 22 players running around a field. Matches themselves cannot tell you anything about the political ramifications of one team winning title after title, or about the way fans interact with the communities around them for better or worse.

You can watch a match and see fans going crazy when their team scores, but the image alone will not explain why that particular goal against that particular team at that particular stadium means more than any other goal scored that year. It is the written word which enables us to connect to the emotional content of the game beyond the touchline. Sometimes we can extend this to the pitch itself. A few years ago Rob Smyth wrote a beautiful entry in the guardian’s Joy of Six article about passes. I took so much pleasure from these words that I will take the liberty of quoting it in full.

6) Roberto Rivelino, BRAZIL 0-0 England, Friendly, Rio de Janeiro, 8 June 1977

Some things are best left to the imagination. The future; the physical act of love; and this pass by Rivelino. During a trawl through every single Rivelino clip on YouTube, there was a secret wish that this 80-yard wonder would not turn up – because it could never be quite as good as it is in our mind’s eye. Or, indeed, in Kevin Keegan’s mind’s eye.

“I’ll never forget one of his passes in Rio, it was every inch of 80 yards,” wrote Keegan in his excellent 1979 book, Against The World. “I wouldn’t have believed it was possible to strike a ball so hard, so far, so accurately, until I saw Rivelino do it from the edge of his penalty area.

“The target man was 20-yards inside England’s half and starting a full diagonal sprint to get behind Dave Watson and Emlyn Hughes. Yet the ball pinpointed him, it fell in his stride. He didn’t need to change direction. I was about three yards away from Rivelino and I felt the wind as the ball passed me at shoulder height. The astonishing thing is that it stayed at the same height all the way. I watched wide-eyed as it flew on and on; that’s one of the rare times when I’ve felt outclassed.”

Keegan’s punditry is often unfairly derided because of the occasional Colemanball, yet he can be perceptive and eloquent, especially on the subject of greatness – which is no surprise, given that few players have ever worked so hard to attain it.

You can’t attain the sort of genius exhibited by Rivelino, whose silken sledgehammer of a left foot was without compare, but then there’s no shame in that. If you thought Frank de Boer’s elegant reacher for Dennis Bergkamp in 1998, wonderfully described as a “stretch limo of a pass” in Cris Freddi’s history of the World Cup, was good, try to imagine this.

And then be thankful that your imagination is where it will stay.

I agree with Smyth. I am so, so happy I have never seen footage of that pass. I never want to. I want only to imagine it from Keegan’s point of view and attempt to feel what he felt at that moment; the sense of awe, of respect, of adulation that no one could have perceived from the raw footage alone without him going on to tell us how it felt.

Thinking about the way I interact with the only other sport to which I still devote any serious headspace, I now realise how our ability to connect with the emotional content of what sport can provide is in no way linked to our ability to see the events on the field.

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I rarely watch cricket. Partly this is due to the fact that, since 2005, test matches can only be found on Sky, which I neither want nor can afford. But days spent on the sofa following tests on Channel 4 were a staple feature of the summer holidays when I was young, so I already had the framework around which I could attach my emotions to the sport as I matured. Thus the sport has remained in my head and I still care about what happens. Very few people are responsible for this. For football I trawl through writer after writer, article after article, book after book. I pass hours on twitter, scrolling away in search of more information I shall never actually need.

For cricket, by contrast, I simply read the guardian. There is so much to admire about the content you can find on their cricket coverage that it is worth exploring it in detail.

For starters, the blogs they publish are among the few places where the maxim “never read the comments” does not apply. Back when the guardian sportblog started, around the time of the 2006 World Cup, you could find a similar level of knowledge and debate on the football articles, but this withered away within a year or two. On the cricket blogs, it has survived. You find behaviour that makes you forget you are online, where people so regularly dispense with reason, intelligence and subtlety. Take this article about the strange, sad case of Maurice Holmes, which featured one regular contributor taking up a more contrary position than the one he actually held simply to inject balance into what he felt was becoming a one-sided debate. The civility on show means that writers are far more content than those on other sections of the paper to join in below the line.

I do not think I have ever actually commented on a cricket article – if I have it certainly has not happened for many years – mostly out of respect for those that do. I do not feel that my participation would improve the level of debate, so I content myself with seeing what everyone else has to say until such a time actually arrives. I like the fact that there is a place on the internet which can both make me feel welcome visiting due to its convivial atmosphere and compel a loudmouth like me to shut up for once.

Perhaps the most notable thing about reading other people talking about cricket, especially in contrast to football, is how so lacking in a tribal mentality it seems to be. Just as we often fail to appreciate people around us until we are reminded of their mortality, so fans of a sport probably have to come to realise that their sport is dying before they can be civil to one another. Test cricket will probably not last much longer, for reasons I will touch upon later, but in this context decline is has a beauty of is own because of the attitudes it inspires. In this environment, people are more likely to identify as fans of the sport first, and fans of their own teams second. An England fan can appreciate, even cheer, the late blooming of Chris Rogers or the resurrection of Mitchell Johnson because of what it means for the sport as a whole, even when those players are taking their own side to the cleaners. Many fans would probably quite like to see their teams blackwashed by the West Indies, for that would mean that the latter had re-established themselves as a test side to be reckoned with.

Normally we would feel the need to see these events unfold, but in cricket, for me at least, this does not apply. I do not need to see the action to feel the excitement which it inspires. This brings us to the peculiar joys of the OBO, or over-by-over report. As a format it reflects rather beautifully the way you can interact with cricket at the ground. During the lulls you can pass the time discussing hilarious inanities, but when the drama returns it is exhilarating. Many of my most powerful memories of the sport come not from the sight of seeing a stump flying out of the ground, but by reading someone else’s description of it. Rob Smyth’s description of England’s farcical, Jerome Taylor-inspired batting collapse at Sabina Park in 2009 being a particularly notable example. When the guardian published their ode to the OBO, they got the tone spot on, as did those below the line. To quote just one reader, the OBO is

Almost the last place of discussion on the internet where people leave their rancid opinions at the door and just behave like nice people and have a good time (even if they are talking about their relationship inadequacies and career failures). Humour, generosity, modesty and a shared love of the world’s most civilised game. That’s the OBO to me.

For the blogs and the OBO to function properly you need people who have a feeling for the game and its history as well as the ability to write, and the guardian does not lack such talent. Through them I get the impression that, unlike many sports, cricket writing still seems to be dominated by people who, even when railing against the incompetent bluster of national associations and governing bodies (it is nice to know some things in sport are truly universal), are capable of demonstrating a most profound love for their sport. No-one encapsulates this better than Andy Bull, whose output is consistently excellent. No other sports writer I am aware of even comes close to him in terms of the quality of his prose or the affinity he displays for the sport he covers. It is worth following cricket as a whole for his work alone. For those who want to explore his archive you could start anywhere, but two pieces I am particularly fond of are his personal reflections on the Allen Stanford case and a beautiful piece following the epic World Cup semi-final between South Africa and New Zealand.

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Test cricket does not lend itself well to TV, which is what will probably kill the sport in the long term. Partly this is because test cricket takes a long time. Most people are not able to watch over 35 hours’ worth of coverage over five days. And, unlike football, the majority of the most important matches do not take place in adjacent time zones. But these are not the main reasons why test cricket and TV make such uneasy bedfellows. Football, for instance, is based on moments. As much as we not like this method of analysis, we can still discern a fair amount about the overall pattern of a game from the goals and key incidents. Cricket, however, does not work because of moments. The joy of cricket, for me, is derived from the way the match ebbs and flows over five days. A single test match can be like a whole season when it comes to the emotional rollercoaster ride that players and spectators experience.

That is something that TV cannot simplify or boil down into a highlights package. You can watch the last episode of a 10-part drama series and know how it ends, but the joy of the experience comes from knowing what went before and how it unfolded. Test cricket is the same in that you have to experience the match in full (via TV or an OBO) to get the pay-off at the end. But who has the time to watch it all, and which TV companies have the patience to devote such vast chunks of their schedule for little more than an outside chance of high drama on Sunday or Monday evening?

Due to the power that TV holds over sport, some examples of which I gave at the top of this piece, someone will either have to find a way to square that circle, or test cricket will fall by the wayside. Even if it does survive, it will probably function only as an antiquated cousin of the dominant, TV-friendly Twenty20 format. But this same trend is what makes us fully appreciate all that the game can offer us. For some it might be Kumar Sangakkara finally getting a century at Lord’s or Sachin Tendulkar’s ton completing a mammoth run-chase barely three weeks after the Mumbai terror attacks. For me it was and continues to be the realisation of the depth with which sport speaks to us and the variety of ways in which it does so.

On that note I should add two important points. Firstly, I am well aware that I might be totally wrong about all of the above. My interaction with cricket comes from a single source where, somehow, the tribal and abusive excesses of the internet are largely curbed. I am not so naïve to assume that all cricket-related discussion operates along identical lines. Secondly, I am not interested in point scoring between sports. Just as the arguments about which league are the best are completely pointless, so are similar arguments between sports. One is not better or worse than the other. What they are is different. They have different cultures, different norms, different histories and they make us react in different ways.

When I get home from work having missed a football match I really wanted to see, I find out what the score was and immediately hunt down video highlights. It is not enough for me to know that a particular player scored, I want to see how it happened, and I delight (or despair) in the emotion it inspires in me. Only then do I go in search of written reactions.

When I get home from work having missed the last day of a close-run test, I head straight for the OBO. I want to see who got out and when, and I delight in seeing the emotion it inspires in other people within the context of the game.

In both cases, we are able to connect with the only thing that matters: the emotional content of sport.