Drugs in sport

Twirling towards freedom

The Sporting Life

Oscar Pistorius during 2011 World championships Athletics in Daegu. Photo by Erik van Leeuwen

The “blackest day in Australian sport” was born in locker rooms and laboratories, well away from any arena. Lance Armstrong finally, definitively, fell from grace while seated in a television studio across from Oprah Winfrey. Oscar Pistorius shot his girlfriend three times through a bathroom door in a heavily guarded walled community in Pretoria.

In simpler times, when newspapers reported on sportspeople, the failings they recounted happened on the field.  

Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympian gold medalist who became the first double amputee to run against able-bodied athletes at the London Olympics, had further to fall than most. The inspirational athlete is now an accused murderer, after shooting his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine’s Day. It was a murder that was always going to make headlines.

What carries such athletes to the dizzying heights of public adoration, and then sees them dumped into courtrooms? What are we doing to our sportspeople?

Bestowing fame and fortune on teenagers who are taught to covet victory at all costs, seems like an objectively bad idea. The lesson that winning isn’t everything is learnt early by most, but it’s quickly forgotten – and has no place, it seems, in professional sport. Why we’re all surprised when athletes turn to performance enhancing drugs isn’t clear. What does seem certain is that the unsettling psychological effects of this drug use will be closely scrutinised during what already appears set to be remembered as sport’s blackest year.

According to British press reports, police sources revealed that “boxes and boxes” of unopened steroids were found in Pistorius’ house, “in every form possible” including pills and syringes. Pistorius’ lawyer has said that these were a legal, herbal remedy. Speculation is rife that a “roid rage” argument may be made either by the prosecution or the defense, and South Africa’s City Press reports that police requested Pistorius’ blood be tested for drugs. During the bail hearing this week, it has already been raised (by the prosecution) that Pistorius flew into a rage after learning that Steenkamp received a text message from a former boyfriend. Whether the Valentines Day murder was a crime of passion, or the ugly effects of PEDs on Pistorius’ mood, judgment and personality is yet to be determined.

The uglier effects of hero worship are already far too clear. See Shane Warne, Tiger Woods, and almost anyone who pulls on a Collingwood jersey. To withstand the media scrutiny and unadorned adoration we’ve bestowed upon them, athletes need more than physical strength. But as we encourage athletes to push beyond ordinary human achievement, it’s as though we excuse them from acting human when it really counts.

We’ve happily put our sports stars on a pedestal, but given no thought as to how they’re expected to stay up there or, at the very least, make a graceful descent. The most interesting heroes have always been the fallen ones.

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.


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