PtG Article 30.10.2007

World records - a return to year zero?

If there is one subject in which Play the Game is well versed, it is the use of illegal drugs in sport. Day three of the 2007 conference saw veteran anti doping campaigner Sandro Donati calling for radical new thinking to encourage a doping-free sports culture.

Arguably the man closely most associated with Play the Game’s anti doping initiatives, Professor Sandro Donati is most famous for his exposés of widespread drug abuse in professional cycling in the 1990’s. A course of action which, in addition to getting him fired as the Italian Olympic Committee’s Head of Research, contributed to a global acknowledgement of the scope of the problem in cycling and other sports. Currently a consultant at Italy’s Ministry of Social Affairs, Donati presented Play the Game with a provocative argument against many of the ideals elite sport holds dear – not least the value of world records.

Currently, he said, we are instilling the wrong values in our children. Youth sports programmes are modelled on professional sport, which is inherently, and perhaps hopelessly corrupt. We would not allow our children to model themselves on drug abusers or corrupt gamblers – so why do we encourage them to imitate and idolize professional sportsmen?  Furthermore, he said, initiatives such as IOC President Jacques Rogge’s plan to create of a “Youth Olympics” from 2010, are just adding to the problem. Although the games are aimed at combating child obesity, he pointed out that competitors will represent a tiny elite and it is precisely this concentration on the elite that causes high dropout rates from sport and subsequent child obesity.

Donati criticized the current trend for early child specialization, which, in his eyes, often leads to over-expectation and disappointment. He also questioned why youth training methods are influenced by coaches whose CV only boast good results with elite athletes. As an alternative, he proposed that nations develop independent non IOC-affiliated youth sports confederations run by educators with medical and academic as well as sports backgrounds. Different approaches should be taken for different age groups, he said, and specific, targeted training for coaches and administrators should be applied. Such profound changes, he suggested, could result in an attitude shift that may be the most effective anti doping measure we have available.

His most controversial suggestion was to abolish word records. Acknowledging that such a course of action would scrub plenty of genuine records from the history book, he expressed his belief that changing society’s attitudes is more important than preserving memories. Any suspicious records – indeed, probably all records - should be discarded, he said, as they encourage the mentality that often embraces doping 

Ask Vest Christiansen, a lecturer at the University of Aarhus’s, Department of Sport Science in Denmark, has for number of years, been conducting research on the ethics of elite sports, specifically from the athlete’s point of view. According to his research, he told Play the Game, the norms and values of professional sport differ in a number o ways from those of society in general. The brutality of a boxing match, the acceptability of gamesmanship and a lack of sympathy for the underdog were all examples of sport’s “win at all costs” mentality. Athletes, he said, realise that sport is “dominated by the right and might of the strong”. Exploiting opponent’s weakness and shaking their self-confidence is also seen as part of the game. Given this differing morality, he said, perhaps the question “why do athletes use drugs” should be replaced with “Why do so few athletes use drugs?”

During the course of his research, Christiansen investigated the reasons that professional athletes choose to stay clean. Most of those interviewed said that they understood why their colleagues took illegal drugs. The most common reason others refrained was not related to their health. Many athletes legally gamble with their health to reach an elite level, he pointed out, and some see doping as a logical progression. Moral qualms were also low on the list.  According to Christiansen, most athletes refrain from doping simply due to the fear of being caught, and the subsequent social stigma of being branded a “drugs cheat”.