In an oddly low-key way, I think this is one of the defining images of our era:
It depicts the South African rugby squad that won the last World Cup, in all their glory. The same squad are about to take on the British and Irish Lions. Sometimes a picture really does tell a thousand words. This one tells a million, largely about moral cowardice and corruption amongst the press. No one can look at this with honest eyes and tell me they think these physiques are legit. How they hell can you play an incredibly bruising contact sport, which requires an absurd level of physical intensity even in training, and yet recover fast enough to spend all the time in the gym needed to get as jacked as this?
There is of course plenty of evidence that South African rugby is endemically doped, from schoolboy level up, but when they win the World Cup, apparently we can’t talk about that. Innocent until proven guilty is of course a fine principle in a court of law, but it doesn’t mean we need to turn our brains off in other contexts.
But rugby, of course, won’t talk about doping because everyone’s doing it, though perhaps not quite on the same scale and intensity as the Springboks. Welsh schoolboy rugby has all the same problems with PEDs, and you’ve have to be delusional to assume the problems don’t go up to the professional ranks.
The 2012 Olympics occupy a prominent part in British collective memory, especially for people who either love or hate the opening ceremony. But absolutely no one wants to remember how it was one of the dirtiest events in modern sporting history. Lisa Dobriskey, who finished 10th in the 1500m, is now up to fourth - once you remove all the runners in the race who have subsequently been banned for doping offences. Mo Farah’s coach for the event, Alberto Salazar, has since been banned for four years by USADA. British Cycling, responsible for so many of “Team GB’s medals”, has fallen under a dark cloud of testosterone gels, banned doctors, and allegations that the UK Anti-Doping Agency colluded with British Cycling to cover up a rider’s positive test.
Very occasionally, athletes and commentators break cover. Dobriskey herself publicly stated that she knew the race was dirty in its immediate aftermath. Steve Cram, on watching Taoufikh Makhloufi blow away the field in the men’s 1500m, simply sounded sad and muted on the commentary, clearly so unable to believe what he was seeing that he couldn’t even be bothered to sound the usual pundit’s false note of celebration. But these acts of moral courage are few and far between, and invariably go unheralded, their eventual vindication unnoticed. The general public don’t want to know and don’t especially care, so long as the spectacle is good and their country’s stars- are at the top.
And indeed, in some ways, doping does improve the spectacle. Your favourite athletes become ageless, their performances staying world-class deep into their late 30s. The torch is never passed as it once was. There are no more moments where a desperate Pete Sampras reads a letter from his wife on the court during the changeovers, searching for something to rekindle the old magic that just isn’t there any more. Nowadays, the 35 year-old tennis player deep in the fifth set of a Grand Slam final still scrambles like an 18-year old playing the first round of qualifying, no matter how many gruelling five-setters they played in previous rounds.
Professional wrestling, is of course, the ultimate in artificial spectacle that masquerades as sport, although in a bizarre role reversal many modern pro wrestlers are considerably less buff than athletes competing in supposedly legit competition: no one looks at Daniel Bryan or Seth Rollins and thinks of them as steroid freaks. But wrestling, as its kayfabe nature became public knowledge, has slowly moved away from its era of clean-cut but steroid-enhanced superheroes like Hulk Hogan. The modern pro wrestler is a much more nuanced character who subtly shifts between embracing and hating their fanbase, existing with ease in the world of the anti-hero, deliberately playing off the crowd’s mixed reactions. As the crowds became aware of the true nature of what took place before their eyes, the industry lost its moral valence but surprised many by surviving and evolving into something new and perhaps equally compelling.
For now, of course, mainstream sport is still in the same place as pro wrestling of the early 1980s, where Hulk Hogan bodyslamming Andre the Giant was perceived as a genuine act of heroism, a fitting conclusion to a real athletic contest. Fans today are eager - even desperate - to continue to invest sport with moral meaning, as we see in the discourse surrounding the 2012 Olympics, or Euro 2021. They have not yet become “smarks”, in wrestling parlance. When they do, however, I do not predict that sport will die, but like wrestling, it will perhaps fade away to a smaller and less prominent place in our culture, as the societal quest for heroism goes elsewhere for fulfilment.