A few years ago I was on a school trip to Canberra as a parent helper. Amongst other places we went to the Australian Institute of Sport. There in the middle of the morning on a school day were two girls aged around six doing gymnastics. I asked our guide why the girls were not in school.
In a matter of fact manner I was told that they have “compressed” school time so that they can spend six hours per day training! It got worse. Talent scouts recruit children as young as three who are seen to have talent. The family, once agreed, is relocated to Canberra. Their lives effectively become run by the AIS.
This is 21st century Australia, not 1970’s East Germany.
Why does this story come to mind?
The revelation this week that there is use of illegal substances across many Australian sports shows that the “win at all costs” mentality is firmly entrenched.
In what has been described as a “bombshell” the Crime Commission has found evidence of doping, use of banned substances and links to organized crime in sport. Sports scientists are using an array of substances to get the best performance out of players. Some clearly cross the line.
Amongst the allegations are that players at one AFL club were asked to sign waivers about what they were taking. Others include use of calf blood and vitamin injections in Botox clinics. Doctors and pharmacists from hormone clinics may be involved in providing steroids and growth hormone.
The Lance Armstrong story has arrived in Australia on a large scale.
Government ministers and politicians express their “outrage” and “horror”. Meanwhile the AIS is a government run agency. It was set up after the 1976 Olympics when Australia “failed to win a gold medal.
It should not come as a surprise that the same mentality, which thinks it, is OK to gather up pre school children, remove them from friends and familiar surrounds and have them train for hours a day morphs into a mentality, which thinks it, is OK to use any substance, which might give a slight edge.
This is especially the case when rewards for winning are considerable and the chances (thus far at least) of getting caught are small.
The surprise expressed at the involvement of organized crime is also a bit rich. If you want illegal substances you are hardly going to go to the shop! You buy it on the black market from someone who by definition is a criminal-they are selling you something illegal!
On a smaller scale I have seen this winning mentality in junior sports where parents cheat so that their child’s team can win. This includes the use of ring-in players.
And the sporting public are also involved. We like to see a show and to see our team to win. We do not really want to know what goes on behind the scenes. To that extent the public outrage is partly directed at what has occurred but also by the fact that the information is now public. We cannot pretend it isn’t there.
Once upon a time sport was about competing and doing the best you could. Someone could run the fastest or jump the highest. Winning was nice but it was recognized that not everyone could. Some had more natural talent than others but training could turn an “average “ athlete into a winning one.
Then sports scientists got involved. Initially this was to help technique and focus on nutrition. Then came supplements and now all the rest.
If you reward certain outcomes then people will work towards that outcome. This is human nature. If winning is all that matters, you get mega dollars for winning and nobody asks how you did it then you will do whatever it takes. In turn others seeing this will feel they have to do the same. This was evidenced in cycling.
Players will be in the firing line and I hope that those who cheated get what they deserve. However the problem is deeper. Sports administrators and coaches have involved sports scientists in their clubs and have not wanted to ask questions. They will have to. All these people have questions to answer.
The government cannot claim to be clean either. At the AIS children and teenagers are pressured to perform. If they do not they can be turfed out and lose their scholarship. The family may be then placed under financial stress. Would it be a surprise if they also did whatever it takes?
And those of us who watch sport on TV feed the system with money. Is it a surprise that sportspeople do whatever they can to get their hands on the money.
Supplements and substances are not the problem. Sportspeople are not the problem. Even sports scientists are not the problem.
A culture that richly rewards wining no matter how you do it with everyone turning a blind eye is the problem. Until this is solved the game of cat and mouse will continue in sport.