On virtually the same day that I put pen to paper to draft a post on the latest contender in the category of Worst Doping Documentary Ever, Arve Hjelseth, the Norwegian idrottsforum.org blogger, went public with his musings on the troublesome documentary. (For another contender, see my October 2012 post.) In doing so, he finally succeeded in bringing our dormant commentary section to life, which is not a negligible achievement at all.
Sadly, however, the debate triggered by him tended to emulate the well-known journalistic approach to the use of drugs in sport, an approach that seeks to denounce ‘cheating’ athletes/countries and, at the same time, absolve other athletes/countries from acts of ‘cheating’. Accordingly, when the Swedish documentary Blodracet (2013) suggested that Norwegian cross-country skiers too have resorted to illicit manipulation of blood values, the Norwegian ski authorities swiftly disputed the allegation and found avid supporters among Norwegian journalists, authors and academics.
As I see it, scholars of sport should firmly refuse to participate in any variety of the journalistic blame game. Instead of speculating on the extent of individual athletes’ medication, we should strive to focus on the behemoth of high-performance sport as a whole.
Thus, the first observation to be made is that the constant urge for performance enhancement concerns all countries and all athletes who wish to prosper in their profession. It is plain ridiculous to aver that ‘our’ athletes behave in a substantially different manner than ‘your’ athletes.
Second, any discussion of drug-related sanctions in sport should acknowledge the fact that the system of anti-doping is not only intellectually flawed but also fundamentally corrupt. The only reliable results are those recorded by stopwatch; the so-called laboratory results, by contrast, merely distort what would otherwise be a reasonably fair contest.
Third, humanistic scholars ought to side with the downtrodden athletes and save their criticism for the powers that be. Probably the noblest thing we can achieve in this particular field of study is to empower the athletes so that they could at long last define the ethics of elite sport by themselves.
It should therefore be totally inconsequential whether an intrepid journo can ‘prove’ that Norwegian skiers have competed and still compete on equal (medical) terms with their opponents. Of course they do, which means that the sport of cross-country skiing teems with dedicated rather than devious people. The best athletes emerge victorious in any sport, even if there is no way to ensure that all participants have benefitted from an identical set of genes or skis.
Indeed, a major problem with shoddy reports like Blodracet is that the sensationalistic obsession with drugs overlooks other factors that contribute to sportive success. For a novice athlete from a second-rate skiing country, medical know-how is arguably easier to obtain and update than to gain access to state-of-the-art training facilities and the latest innovations in ski waxing.
As if frivolous finger-pointing by journalists wasn’t reprehensible enough, two academic figures, namely Bengt Saltin and Rasmus Damsgaard, lent their voices to the inflammatory accusations in the Swedish documentary. Saltin and Damsgaard indulged in uncalled-for speculation on ‘doped’ skiers, although the latter one, apparently after considerable pressure of Norwegian origin, further compromised his integrity by reneging on his initial remarks. And he is currently the International Ski Federation’s supreme anti-doping expert!
All of the above suggests that the real villains in the ongoing cross-country skiing drug drama are not the athletes but the people who churn out dubious documentaries and the attention-seeking academics who cannot control their mouths. Norwegian skiers, for their part, deserve credit for their brilliant achievements since the nineteenth century, just as the East German skiers ought to be fondly remembered for their moment of glory in the 1970s.