When a few elite sprinters recently tested positive for stimulants, a Finnish tabloid solicited comments from a sports scholar locally known as a critic of the anti-doping ideology. According to Iltalehti’s interview, the Finnish scholar agreed with the common belief that the ill-fated urine samples had dealt a tremendous and possibly lethal blow to the ‘credibility’ of sprinting.
Yet the so-called expert failed to spell out the exact procedure of measuring the sport’s lost credibility. Come to think of it, is it even conceivable to submit the buzzword to a serious analysis?
Credibility as the quality of simply believing in officially timed results is of course still there. As long as the participants cover the same distance and don’t obstruct each other’s performances, the credibility of the race cannot be at stake. A male athlete can indeed gallop one hundred meters in nine and a half seconds and a female athlete in ten and a half seconds.
Integrity is another synonym for credibility, and in a sportive context it implies strict adherence to the current rules that regulate the use of performance-enhancing substances and methods. In this limited sense the credibility of the sprint disciplines certainly seems to have diminished, although (and this is a crucial qualification) their popularity shows no signs of wearing out.
Cycling is a prime example of an immensely popular sport which has remained immune to a series of drug disclosures. In fact, the mediated ‘doping scandals’ in cycling could hardly have been better designed by a top-rated marketing company. The melodrama of nosy journalists forcing athletes to lie about their medication and the very same journalists professing disbelief when their heroes own up to being ‘drug cheats’ is entertainment of highest order (except for the disgraced heroes).
It follows that the idle speculation about the endangered credibility of this or that sport is totally beside the point. While an increasing number of observers believe that all elite athletes resort to a wide array of drugs, their conviction hasn’t yet translated into wholesale abandonment of sport.
Die Verärderung des Sports ist gesellschaftlich, argued the title of a typically illuminating volume by Henning Eichberg nearly thirty years ago. Only a societal change can bring about a veritable turnabout in our conception of sport. In other words, we won’t stop believing in the spectacle of medically-enhanced sport until we manage to dispose of the ‘faster, higher, stronger’ paradigm in our societies obsessed with all sorts of performances.
In the meantime, I’d strongly recommend that sports scholars keen on retaining their personal credibility should abstain from seeking journalistic fame. What I set out to explain in the Finnish tabloid interview was the simple fact that no amount of drug stories can have a lasting impact on the fate of sport. Either I couldn’t make myself understood or the journalist had reached a conclusion before contacting the ‘expert’ of his choice.
Whether the credibility crisis caused by the interview will put a premature end to my academic endeavors remains to be seen.