The 2001 doping incident that implicated the Finnish cross-country ski team represents a ‘national trauma’ for Finland, asserts Arto Halonen, the director and co-screenwriter of When Heroes Lie (original title: Sinivalkoinen valhe). It certainly seems to have been a traumatic experience for Halonen whose film recently premiered in Finland; later this year the documentary will be broadcast in Norway. Recycling old stories with a few rumors thrown in, the film generated headlines across Scandinavia well before its release, headlines that sought to contest the integrity of certain athletes.
According to a particularly sensational claim, Juha Mieto, arguably the most beloved Finnish skier ever, had discussed the use of anabolic steroids in 1975. But, and this is a truly momentous but, Mieto and other contemporaries promptly corrected the year (it was 1972) and disputed the reference to steroids. If, however, a drug discussion had taken place in 1972, there was still no reason for the filmmaker to humiliate an elder statesman of Finnish sport. Since anabolic steroids were not banned at the time, their ethical status matched the ethical status of vitamin injections.
Alas, Halonen totally ignores the elementary fact that if a substance is not prohibited, anybody can legitimately resort to it. Amazingly, the documentary keeps moralizing for two hours without ever specifying that there actually are anti-doping rules and that those rules were not handed over to humankind on the slopes of Mount Sinai. That stated, anachronistic accounts can also be encountered in scholarly literature; the doping phenomenon has always lent itself to cheap posturing at the expense of calm deliberation.
The moral standard of the film corresponds with the glaring lack of historical context. Time and again the director ambushes people with his prying camera, shooting drug-related queries so as to obtain ‘confessions’. This is precisely how decent folks are forced to defend themselves by less than truthful statements, as the philosopher Verner Møller argues in The Scapegoat (2011). If you don’t tolerate lying, Møller reasons in his book about drugs in cycling, ‘it is your responsibility to try and avoid creating situations which may tempt lies’.
One should perhaps not expect filmmakers to be familiar with sport philosophy, but laypeople too are increasingly learning to problematize the issue of performance enhancement. Why is this substance banned while the use of another that can produce similar results is not regulated?
For Halonen, ‘clean sport’ reigns supreme although he fails to mention (for example) hypoxic chambers, vitamin B12 injections and iron supplements. There’s an infinite variety of perfectly legitimate means to manipulate one’s blood values, but such nuances are beyond many observers’ comprehension. All that matters is to extort confessions and sing the praises of an utterly abstract and therefore meaningless concept of ‘clean sport’.
Speaking of confessions, I should probably own up to being a minor character in the libelous film. When Halonen phoned me last year I could immediately sense that his intentions were not quite honorable; consequently, I refused to take part in his project. Yet two or three phone calls and emails later I yielded. I simply let myself to be lured into a trap by promises of a balanced and thoughtful approach. Ultimately, the director cut out all replies and reflections that went against his prejudices, leaving just a skillfully edited snippet in which I appear to join the chorus of moralizers.
When it comes to sensitive topics like drugs in sport, I strongly urge scholars to abstain from co-operating with journalists and filmmakers whose moral and intellectual credentials cannot be ascertained. An aura of academic credibility is the last thing the bloodhounds deserve.
Looking on the bright side, at least one Finnish journalist dared to confront the self-satisfied director with the only relevant question: ‘Aren’t you afraid that your documentary and the ensuing discussion will end up increasing the number of tragic fates?’ In Halonen’s view, such an outcome ‘would be terribly sad, of course’, because he knew that the premature death of Mika Myllylä (1969–2011), one of the six skiers who failed a urine test in 2001, resulted from a combination of public humiliation and incessant jeering.
Should other athletes perish in the wake of his injurious documentary, the original tagline (‘The lie is bigger than you ever believed’) will, I presume, swiftly be replaced by a more attractive one: ‘This film is more lethal than you ever believed!’