The deadly dividends of anti-doping

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20 years ago this month the world of cross-country skiing was agog over a few foul-smelling urine samples. Six Finnish athletes, among them Mika Myllylä, one of the most accomplished skiers of his generation, were disqualified at the world championships held in Lahti, Finland.

”What do we stand to gain from this,” asked Aarne Aho, Mika Myllylä’s former coach. ”Mika’s life is in ruins, and so will be that of many others.”

The old man knew what he was talking about. After a tumultuous decade littered with comeback efforts and substance abuse, Mika Myllylä died alone at home in 2011. He just couldn’t cope with the pervasive and, all too often, pervert media attention that totally deprived him of privacy. As the journos in Finland and elsewhere loved to put it, the Lahti incident turned this national hero into a national disgrace.

Alas, Myllylä wasn’t the only victim of the 2001 anti-doping plot, the full story of which I have discussed elsewhere. (The Finnish Ski Federation had made powerful enemies on the eve of Lahti, enemies that included the media and a former narcotics agent.) An aged parent of a stigmatized ski personality died from a heart attack the same year, two or three marriages fell apart, other people suffered from serious ailments, even family members had to endure shameless heckling.

What does it actually feel to be a victim of the urine-cum-blood juggernaut? Soon after Myllylä’s premature death I got a glimpse of the ugly underbelly of anti-doping. A Finnish elite athlete invited me to his home where he had closed himself in as a result of a positive urine sample. The curtains were drawn and my interlocutor’s voice was hardly audible; a pall of misery hung above the home, and finally, as darkness fell, he admitted to having entertained suicidal thoughts.

Ironically, more than 50 years after the introduction of urine control, the leading lights of anti-doping still claim to be concerned about the athletes’ physical welfare. ’You see, we are merely protecting the poor athletes from harming themselves!’

If the anti-doping folks are not humanoids in disguise or plain psychopaths, they surely must be self-serving careerists with little sense of empathy. Or, to quote cutting-edge researchers capable of elementary empathy, human tragedies ’are the inevitable outcome of a reactionary, fear-based, top-down policy which has severe consequences for athletes’ (Paul Dimeo and Verner Møller, The Anti-Doping Crisis in Sport, Routledge 2018).

Yet the entrepreneurs of anti-doping are far from the only beneficiaries of the ’inhumane system in which the plight of individuals is ignored’ (see above). The media people just cannot help dragging every suspected ’drug cheat’ through the mud – and keeping them tarnished for the rest of their lives. While the two academics quoted above omit media criticism from their recommendations for ’radical reform’, my very first recommendation would be to allot no more than ten lines, or ten seconds of air time, for spurious urine samples. That’s it, end of story, no more rumination.

Had my modest proposal been adopted at the beginning, i.e. around the year Mika Myllylä was born, precious lives would have been saved. Also, the journalists could have turned their attention to other, arguably even more enigmatic issues than the medication of this or that athlete.

New directions for investigative journalism come readily to mind. What sort of ski wax did the victorious athlete benefit from? Did he/she have cereals or porridge for breakfast? If porridge, was it spiked with supplements? And finally, might it not be advantageous for serious skiers to manipulate their performance ability to the extent of having no underwear at all?

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