Action Replay – Best foot forward

In May the professional cyclist Lizzy Banks decided to retire from the sport, although UK Anti-Doping found that she was in no way responsible for the traces of banned substances found in a positive doping test. However, her life had been ‘torn apart’ after she was suspended for ten months, during which the prospect of a two-year ban hung over her, even though nobody claimed that she had knowingly taken the drugs. The ordeal had cost her around £40,000, quite apart from the mental stress.

Drugs are banned in sport, precisely because they work and can improve performance, sometimes markedly so. An endurance sport such as cycling is particularly prone to doping. As the Banks case shows, athletes are susceptible to being charged even though innocent. They may have to be very careful about what they order at a restaurant or coffee shop in order to avoid ingesting something that’s banned, and have to set aside an hour each day when they may be randomly tested.

And there is a backlash, with proposals for a so-called Enhanced Games to take place sometime, somewhere, with no rules against doping in place. This is intended as a kind of rival to the Olympics, though it is not clear if it will ever get off the ground. The website describes it as ‘the Olympics of the future’, and claims that sport is safer without drug testing.

Of course, all sportspeople go to lengths to improve their performance, from becoming fitter to adopting better techniques of whatever kind. They may also use better equipment, but this can lead to problems too. In 2020 World Athletics banned the Alphafly running shoes produced by Nike, which had carbon plates and sizeable midsoles and were claimed to increase speed (eg, in marathon running) by 3 percent. Athletes wearing them had dominated medal-winning at some events.

Such kit is sometimes described as ‘technological doping’, and the World Anti-Doping Agency can ban items considered to be ‘against the spirit of the sport’. For instance, a swimsuit that increased buoyancy was banned in 2009 by swimming’s governing body. Nike has since created a revised Vaporfly shoe that seems to have gained official acceptance; it costs £200 or more. Tennis rackets may be claimed to be ‘the best’, and the interpretation of this will vary depending on a player’s ability.

Sportswear companies of course compete against each other to produce and sell the most supposedly efficient shoes and so on. Competition in the capitalist marketplace echoes that in the sports arena. Sometimes the line between what is deemed acceptable and what is not can be very uncertain and maybe arbitrary.


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