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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

Whatever the Cost May Be

Preparing for the fight of our life

The Hypocrisy Game

Our athletes work like pros and get treated like children

Douglas Brown

Fastest, Highest, Strongest: A Critique of High-Performance Sport

Rob Beamish and Ian Ritchie


208 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9780415770422

Canada has a strange and dubious distinction in the arena of international sport. It is the only country to have hosted the Olympic Games (summer or winter) without winning a single gold medal. Being successful hosts is one thing; being successful athletic participants is quite another. Over the past 30 years, our role at the Olympics has generated considerable public debate over the need—and the methods—to end up on the podium. Drugs are at the heart of this debate, which will only become louder and more urgent as the 2010 Winter Games at Vancouver/Whistler approach.

Fastest, Highest, Strongest: A Critique of High-Performance Sport offers an interesting context in which to consider this issue. It is a well-researched book that focuses on the attitudes and ideas that have generated current international policies on the use of performance-enhancing substances. The book challenges the squeaky-clean sport ideals that the International Olympic Committee and national governments like to use to justify their “institutional” stakes in the world of high performance sport. In other words, authors Rob Beamish and Ian Ritchie ask us to re-examine the relationship between the ideals and the real practices of achieving sporting success. Modern sport is work; it is rational; the best athletes in the world do not play sport—they work at it. The logic that athletes should disregard the advantages of some technologies (drugs, blood doping, DNA therapy) over others (scientifically based rehabilitation regimes, enhanced bio-medical monitoring and altitude training) seems flawed in this era when no one can genuinely describe the Olympic Games as a beacon of amateur sporting ideals.

A quick survey of Canadian sports history will be helpful here. During the period between the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal and the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary, the federal government attempted to improve the rankings of Canadians athletes by centralizing a national sport delivery system in Ottawa that emphasized success at the Olympics.

But in the late 1980s, just when Canadian athletes began asserting international prominence in a few high-profile sports, disaster struck in the form of the Ben Johnson drug scandal at Seoul. Under the influence of the subsequent Dubin Commission, Canadian sports bureaucrats reimagined themselves as international crusaders against drug use in sport. No Olympic Games success was worth the international humiliation of another high-profile positive test.

In 1988, Canada’s modest drug-testing program was run by a part-time administrator out of a closet at the Sport Medicine Council of Canada. Today, that has been replaced with a suite of executive offices and a staff of more than 30. The operation is known as the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport and is based in Ottawa. Its 2005–06 operating budget exceeded $5 million. At the international level, Canadian anti-drug zealots have earned themselves a place on the front line in the war against illegal use of performance-enhancing substances in sport. The most visible and controversial Canadian is former IOC vice-president Richard Pound, who is the founding chair of the World Anti-Doping Agency. When it comes to defending the inherent ethical principles of “clean” sport, Pound performs his role with grave (nearly maniacal) commitment.

Now that the Olympic Winter Games are returning to Canada in 2010, with the discomfiting prospect of sustaining Canada’s unique reputation as the most winless hosts ever, sport bureaucrats have decided that Canada must “own the podium.” “The Pursuit of Excellence,” our ambiguous rallying call for the last three decades, no longer reflects official Canadian attitudes toward international sporting success. In Vancouver/Whistler, Canadian athletes must prove that they are the best in the world. Own the Podium is a sport technical program that is costing $110 million over five years.¹ The objective is simple: Canada will win the most medals at these winter games. Performance enhancement is no longer the dirty concept it was during the post–Ben Johnson era. In fact, it has been developed into the cute little acronym “PET” (performance enhancement team). To become the best in the world, Canadian Olympians will be assigned PETs leading up to the games. They will also benefit from a program called Top Secret—“an innovative, research program designed to give Canadian athletes ‘the edge’ in equipment, technology, information, and training.”² Although Top Secret sounds potentially shady, Canada’s official policies on, and sanctions against, doping of all kinds have never been more restrictive. The Own the Podium documents are silent on this loaded question. Canadian athletes remain subject to year-round drug testing (in and out of competition). As a university professor, I have witnessed student athletes being followed around campus by volunteer pee collectors until they deliver an out-of-competition urine sample. Clean athletes remain the overriding “ideal” for Canadian sport bureaucrats and politicians.

Remarkably, Canada’s strategy for global sport dominance has been adopted with very little resistance or ethical debate, which makes Fastest, Highest, Strongest a welcome addition to the library of volumes on high-performance sport. Beamish and Ritchie critique national sport systems and expose the paradoxes and hypocrisies that the Olympic Games create and sustain.

The authors dissect what most observers and sport participants understand intuitively, but struggle to articulate in any meaningful social or political context: sport is not what it used to be. Nineteenth-century ideals like “the gentleman amateur” and clichés like the “inherent purity of sport” no longer provide a moral and ethical foundation when confronting issues in 21st-century sport. Furthermore, for more than a century, the Olympic Games and the IOC have been attempting to define and redefine just exactly what constitutes legitimate sport. Beamish and Ritchie highlight that the IOC has never managed to consolidate a single universal world of sport at the Olympic Games; at the height of the Cold War, for example, IOC officials did not fret about the odd mixture of professional athletes from the eastern bloc competing among amateur athletes from western countries. Realistically, international sport has always been a plural enterprise from nation to nation and from athlete to athlete.

Using this sociological and historical framework, Beamish and Ritchie illustrate the artificiality of the moral argument that underpins current policies on doping in sport. The book offers a two-part argument: 1) “any policy prohibiting selected substances by separating ‘doping’, on the one hand, from ‘sport’, on the other, is misguided. The frequently held assumption that the ‘essential nature of sport’ automatically precludes certain performance-enhancing substances and practices and allows others reinforces the mistaken belief that the ‘ethics’ of performance enhancement are self-evident”; and 2) “the question policy-makers need to address concerns performance enhancement in its full socio-historical context.”

For example, policy makers must acknowledge that “practices constituting sport today are dominated by instrumental rationality, the quest for victory, the pursuit of the linear record, and the desire/demand to push human athletic performance to its outer limits.” Governments and powerful sport organizations (international sport federations and the IOC) have been promoting myths about these questions for more than a century to a sport-consuming public. The authors suggest that elite international sport is scientifically rationalized work where performance enhancement and performance-enhancing technologies play a central and essential role in the lives of athletes and the careers of coaches and sport bureaucrats.

In the end, Beamish and Ritchie suggest that the current policies of drug proscription and the penalties for being caught may, indeed, create situations that put athletes at an even greater risk of hurting themselves. Their argument is complex, and based on several premises. The first, and most important, premise is that anti-doping legislation is couched in a misplaced paternalism: the notion that sport officials must protect athletes from themselves. Next, the list of banned performance-enhancing substances is far too arbitrary and does not acknowledge profound distinctions between substances that are extremely harmful and substances that are less harmful. In order to minimize the risk of getting caught, athletes are choosing drugs that are more harmful but less detectable than drugs that are relatively benign but more easily detectable.

For example, injected oil-based anabolic-androgenic steroids are less toxic to the liver and kidneys but stay in the system longer and are more easily detected in doping tests. Orally consumed water-based steroids are far more likely to damage the liver and kidneys but clear the system quickly and are, therefore, more difficult to detect in doping tests. The authors warn that some misinformed athletes will make decisions to minimize the risk of getting caught at the expense of their long-term health.

The book concludes that three criteria ought to guide future discourse on performance enhancement in sport. These criteria specify that policies on performance enhancement must confront “real” international sport practices in the 21st century, athletes’ health and welfare must be a central consideration while it must be accepted that performance enhancement lies at the core of elite sport participation, and athletes must be brought into the policy-making processes of international sport and the Olympic Games.

To give substance and background to their recommendations, the authors concentrate on two major paradigm shifts that have occurred in the world of athletics over the past century: the shift from amateurism to professionalism and the shift in our understanding of the limits and potential of human performance. The first of these shifts was completed in 1974 when the IOC officially revised its rule on amateurism. Ideologically, the concept of the gentleman amateur implied that an athlete’s pursuit of performance excellence ought to be mediated by his or her willingness not to try too hard. When Pierre de Coubertin reinvented the Olympic Games for the modern world in 1894, he envisioned a class of athletic aristocrats for whom sport competition was an expression of social unity and harmony. He referred to the experience of eurythmie, an aesthetic imperative where the use of excessive force and outward appearances of stress and strain were undesirable. The achievement of this aesthetic was contingent on the notion that real sportsmen pursued sport for sport’s sake, not for external rewards.

By the 1970s, however, efforts to maintain the myth of amateurism clashed dramatically with the reality of the lives of Olympic athletes. In spite of the Olympic Games’ rhetoric, athletes were training full time and under sophisticated and rationalized supervision. Once the 19th-century amateur ideal was abandoned in 1974, the IOC effectively opened the door for athletes, coaches, sport administrators and politicians to push the concept of performance enhancement as far as necessary. Moreover, Beamish and Ritchie present a solid argument that, from the 1970s to the present, real sport cannot be separated from big money and big-P politics. As athletes, governments and the marketplace openly embraced the “pursuit of the linear record,” the IOC shifted its moral compass. Working at sport was no longer perceived as a threat to the legitimacy of the IOC and its authority.

A second paradigm shift the authors refer to occurred when physiologists’ knowledge turned dramatically from one understanding of the human body to another. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, scientists believed that the first law of thermodynamics explained athletic potential and human performance. This law of physics suggested that humans have finite capacities for work and that achieving peak performance is the product of balancing energy conservation with energy expenditure. By the middle of the 20th century, European scientists realized that human capacities for work could, in fact, be increased. Beamish and Ritchie call this “a paradigm shift in the ontology of human performance.” The fundamental training techniques for achieving athletic performances that exceeded so-called “natural” capacities included “overload” or resistance training and “specificity” training. During roughly the same time period, breakthroughs in biochemistry also presented new theories on augmenting “natural” human capacities with performance-enhancing drugs. This new concept of the body presented scientists and sportspeople with new questions and new challenges. What are the limits of a human’s capacity for work? How can technologies be used to enhance human performance? How do the discourses of ethics and morality intersect with the discourses of physiology and biochemistry? And finally, how do these intersecting discourses affect the ideology and practices of modern sport?

Each chapter in the book weaves together events that explain and complicate the moral and ethical issues surrounding the use of drugs in high performance sport. Sometimes all this socio-historical detail can pull the authors off track, but sometimes the detail is fascinating. For example, Chapter Two focuses on the early use of steroids. In the two decades following World War Two, international sport and especially competition at the Olympic Games were haunted by the mystery of steroid use. This vague, yet palpable, anxiety was a confluence of rumours that WWII German soldiers had been systematically given steroids to increase their levels of aggression on the battlefield with the arrival of highly successful Soviet athletes on the international sporting scene when the USSR entered the Olympic Games in 1952. Western coaches, athletes and sport officials speculated that these new powerful Soviet bodies were the product of the same mysterious pharmaceuticals that created the fierce German soldiers of the Wehrmacht.

Fastest, Highest, Strongest concludes with a compelling though not especially controversial critique of modern high performance sport. The authors suggest that critiques should focus on “real” (that is, performance-enhanced) sport, rather than on the ideologies of powerful organizations like the IOC that have consistently denied the “real” political and “real” economic practices that sustain high performance sport in the 21st century. They demonstrate conclusively that the logic of banning specific performance-enhancing substances is flawed. And—this is particularly welcome although the authors do not deal with it in detail—they introduce the athlete into the equation as a powerful and necessary agent in policy-making related to sport and the use of drugs and other enhancements.

Which brings us back to the Canadians, preparing for 2008 in Beijing and 2010 in British Columbia. With Own the Podium, Canadian sport bureaucrats have created an ambiguous and disingenuous mandate for Olympic athletes and their coaches. Practically, the “must win” and “can do” spirit of Own the Podium is muted by the reality that Canadian athletes train like professionals within a sport system that treats them like children at best, or repeat offenders at worst. Our sport system operates from a code of ethics that does not adequately address the reality of human performance and technology (pharmaceutical or otherwise) in the 21st century.

Douglas Brown is an associate professor of sport history at the University of Calgary.