Sex, drugs and... um, sports

2010-11-21 13:00
Victor Dlamini
There is a veil of secrecy hanging over the prevalence of recreational drug abuse in sport. But, given that professional sports people earn such astronomical salaries, is it any wonder that they find it a simple matter to lay their hands on everything from cannabis to cocaine?

Sports authorities seem to wish away the fact of recreational drug use by sports people because of fears about sullying what they imagine to be sport’s squeaky clean image.

But it’s no different than with, say, the rock ‘n roll scene: give someone fame and fortune and they’ll succumb to the lure of drugs.

In the past few weeks, the abuse of drugs like cannabis has been put under the spotlight by Herschelle Gibbs’ autobiography. It’s telling that none of the authorities said Gibbs was lying, but simply repeatedly said they were “disappointed” by his claims.

While Gibbs’ book does not create the impression of widespread abuse, you get the sense that drug use is not isolated to just a few so-called rotten apples.

If the authorities were more frank in dealing with this issue, they would probably get to the bottom of it much quicker than by living in denial. The silence of the sports fraternity about drug use must be broken.

They must learn to speak openly and frankly about how our sports stars are getting high.

Of course, what complicates matters is that even though there is no obvious link between doping and the use of recreational drugs, there is a strong stigma associated with each. But in the case of doping, authorities are quick to pronounce upon the innocence of stars who test positive for a banned substance.

It was no surprise that the Springbok managers went to the extent of describing the facial expressions of the Boks who failed their dope tests last week.

Why not the same when it comes to drugs?

Sadly, with such little openness about how big or small the problem is among top athletes, we are left to scour for anecdotal evidence.

It is interesting that cricketers and footballers in the UK have urged the authorities not to punish athletes who test positive for cocaine and cannabis during the random tests carried out during competitions.

Of course, the consequences of a positive doping test are not just the threat of a two-year ban for a first offence, but also significant social and financial fallout. With those who use recreational drugs, on the other hand, we’re told to put it down to “personal problems”.

John Bramhall, deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, has said: “We have to make sure that a guy struggling with a problem can step forward and receive help to get that issue addressed without the possibility of being suspended, or, even worse than that, losing his contract.”

Bramhall is not alone in preaching leniency. Ian Smith, legal head of the Professional Cricketers’ Association, said cannabis was not a big deal.

“Cannabis is not a big issue with cheating in sport. Let’s get it off the list,” he said.

But this is the kind of inbuilt leniency that encourages some to dabble freely in illegal drugs, knowing that if they are caught they will be protected. Perhaps if there was the threat of losing a contract the players would steer clear of it.

Of course, there are notable exceptions, such as Adrian Mutu, who was thrown out into the cold by Chelsea FC when he tested positive for cocaine. The club’s management sent out a very loud and clear message that it would not tolerate drug abuse among their millionaire players.

Naturally, sports stars are entitled to privacy – albeit the limited kind that society affords all its public figures – but because they often double as role models, their transgressions should not be downplayed or even hidden from the public.

They may have all the success and fame, but they are only human and their struggles would serve as a warning to youngsters, who are currently fed a diet of glitz and glamour.

In our era, when the best sports people earn incredible fortunes, they have become our new rock stars. Their lives come complete with all the privileges, excesses, eccentricities and illicit habits that were standard issue for the rock stars of yesteryear.

At least we knew about it then.