Once again, we are all talking about drugs, yet in the fast-moving world of sports news, by the time this piece is published they may no longer be an issue. You see generally I write these articles on a Sunday. Occasionally on a Monday evening if other commitments allow, but this one’s a Sunday job, just before lunchtime.
At this moment in time the news is this: Russian heavyweight Alexander Povetkin tested positive for something I had never heard of, that has only been on the list of banned substances since January of this year. (Meldonium). Most indications were that his fight with paper champ Deontay Wilder was in grave doubt as a result. Not only that, but several of the thousands of wise men who inhabit Twitter and other boxing opinion boards were already saying that the Russian should be exiled from the sport permanently.
No room for cheats in boxing / It’s a dangerous enough sport already / blah, blah, blah
The whole affair has stuck a stick in my spokes as I had intended to run a full blown preview for what should have been a fascinating heavyweight fight, or at least what passes for a fascinating heavyweight fight in mid-2016. But now we don’t know if it’s even happening – a crying shame.
(There are cynics sprinkled among the moralisers making comments suggesting some sort of foul play, that the fight was never going to happen, it was always too dangerous for Wilder and a way out needed to be found. I can’t buy that either, titillating a suggestion though it may be.)
Meldonium, it seems, is a strain of performance enhancer which increases the size of blood vessels and improves blood flow. Used by Tennis glamour-puss Maria Sharapova throughout her career, it can assist training by adding intensity to workouts and increasing oxygen consumption. Unlike an anabolic steroid, it is not going to build explosive power, muscle mass or brute strength although it’s conceivable it could indirectly boost those qualities if used during specific gym activities.
Since its addition to the banned substance list at the beginning of this year, which its manufacturer has challenged vociferously, maintaining that it “cannot improve athletic performance”, 52 athletes, mostly from track and field, have tested positive. All of them, apart from a Swede, an Ethiopian and a Norwegian are from Russia or other former Eastern Bloc countries.
Regardless of any of that, Povetkin apparently came up with just 70 nanograms of it in his sample. I can’t claim to know what that means and I very much doubt 99% of the other people discussing it online do either, but it doesn’t sound like a lot.
Of course, the Povetkin case comes shortly after Lucas Browne’s 6-month ban for Clenbuterol (which he still contests), the well-publicised misdemeanours of fellow heavyweights Erkan Teper and Tony Thompson, the recent two-year penalty imposed on Barry ‘Kid Galahad’ Awad for some form of steroid, while others, such as Andre Berto and Lamont Peterson turned in positive tests but ones that were consistent with sample contamination rather than usage.
Going beyond the last couple of years, ‘Sugar’ Shane Mosley admitted to using EPO, the same red blood cell enhancer that caused cyclist Lance Armstrong’s name to be dragged through the mud. Roy Jones Junior operated under a large cloud of suspicion in the midst of his glory years, particularly in gaining 20 pounds of muscle in 6 months to win the heavyweight title, then losing it in the same amount of time to go back to light-heavy, a feat which is nigh-on impossible according to the laws of natural physiology. Although never caught, Evander Holyfield’s transition from 188 pound cruiserweight to 212 pound heavyweight raised eyebrows and his name was heavily linked to a steroid and human growth hormone supply company.
Vitali Klitschko admitted to steroid use during his amateur career, casting a shadow over the achievements of his brother, who stayed silent. Manny Pacquiao’s steady climb from flyweight to welterweight is difficult to explain, particularly when he seemed to retain his devastating punch-power as he went. His old adversary Juan Manuel Marquez also mystified onlookers by defying the process of the life-cycle and getting quicker as he aged (while working with Angel Heredia, look him up if you don’t know the connection). The list goes on and on.
In fact, simply by browsing the internet, it is difficult to find many elite level fighters who have not been implicated, at some point, in some way. For my own part, I can state that I have seen it, first hand. Years ago I knew of many guys who were using. I was even approached myself in the changing room of a London gym and offered a variety of substances. At the time boxing was nothing more than a casual hobby for me and I declined, but I knew the man did good business and there were several professionals around.
Within boxing, strength training and the combat sports scene in general, it is rife. Let’s be honest. Should we even be bothered?
World heavyweight champ, Tyson Fury kicked up a stink last year, before he really got his stink-kicking freak on, by stating that boxing had a “big problem with doping.” Speaking to BBC radio he said “I can look at a man and tell you if he’s full of drugs by one glance at his body with his top off.” He went on to suggest that those taking substances do so at their own risk and should not be prevented from doing so.
“I think being in a democratic world means we have to be open to different things,” said Fury. “Why don’t they make drugs totally legal in sports and then it would be fully fair?”
Controversial as it may be to agree with a man currently earmarked as public enemy no.1, Fury clearly had a point. The war against performance enhancing drugs has failed, just as the war on drugs in general has failed. All abolition has achieved is the turning over of the trade into the hands of criminals and the persecution of those who take small amounts for personal use. An enormous money-wasting industry of prevention, screening and detection has operated for years and only managed to single out isolated cases. Why should a few unlucky ones be publically shamed and chided for doing what most of their fellow competitors are doing anyway? It makes no sense.
Drug use in sport is simply an extension of training and coaching. It is another way, albeit a risk-laden one, of becoming the best version of yourself possible. If an athlete is so committed to their cause they are prepared to risk cardio-vascular and nervous system problems later in life, it is surely their decision?
‘Oh’, say those on their high-horses, ‘runners and cyclists are one thing, but boxers hit each other’. So what? The argument that by juicing, they increase the risk of badly hurting their opponent does not hold up. You could just as easily argue they are decreasing their own risk of being hurt. In fact, could it not be said that by doing any kind of training they increase the risk of hurting their opponent? Or by choosing to throw punches at all they increase the risk of hurting their opponent? If they don’t want to hurt their opponent, they are in the wrong game.
Boxing is about hurting. Deal with it. The dangers of the sport are inherent and any attempt to negate them is a fool’s mission. The end point of that logical journey is the banning of boxing altogether.
So I hope by the time this article goes live, on Tuesday morning, the news has been received that Wilder v Povetkin will be going ahead. As a boxing fan of more than thirty years, I have no qualms in seeing the Russian’s hand raised, regardless of what he has done. (I think Lucas Browne should get his title back too.) 70 nanograms of Meldonium, whatever the hell that means, does not detract from the achievement of knocking out Deontay Wilder.
And for the record, drugs or no drugs, I think that’s exactly what he will do.
My book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ was longlisted for William Hill Sports book of the year and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.
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