Register Thursday | March 22 | 2018

A Pound of Fire

The Chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency makes his case

Dick Pound is on fire.

What kind of fire? Well, that depends on who you ask. If you ask Don Cherry, it’s “liar, liar, pants on fire” for Professor Pound’s accusations that up to 30 percent of NHLers are using performance-enhancing drugs. If you ask me, I would say this is a man burning with desire to clean up sports. Despite being under fire in the news lately, Dick Pound, the chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), is a man who refuses to back down.

As I previously reported in this space, we have an innate desire to see our heroes fall. But that is not Pound’s motivation—he is not on a witch hunt. Speaking to the Exercise Science department at Concordia University recently, he described the history of doping in sport and the motivations behind the anti-doping movement. As early as 1904, foreign substances were used in Olympic competition: Thomas Hicks, the winner of the Olympic Marathon in St. Louis that year, used a concoction of strychnine sulphate mixed with raw egg whites—and later, brandy—to keep him going (although at the end of the race he had to be carried across the line and, in fact, nearly died). It wasn’t until 1960, when a Dutch cyclist died from amphetamine use, that the IOC put together a medical commission to examine doping, mostly with respect to health risks—performance enhancement was a secondary concern.

Today, the phrase “level playing field” is lobbed around like a shuttlecock, but this idea is as connected to the reasons why athletes cheat as it is to the reasons why they shouldn’t. Athletes are looking for that extra edge, Pound said at Concordia. “If everybody takes two steroid tablets, the edge disappears. So you say, they’re all taking two—maybe I’d better take four or eight or ten.”

A level playing field is no solution. The motivation behind taking drugs is usually money-based. In amateur sport, there isn’t much money to be made unless you are a winner. In professional sport (like NHL hockey), it’s a different story—just getting there is a big payoff. For an amateur athlete, the pressure to illegally enhance their performance is obviously substantial enough to have precipitated the creation of WADA, but for an aspiring professional athlete, the pressure is even greater. The difference is, with the exposure that professional sport receives, this pressure is being passed down through the minor leagues; to college, junior and even high-school athletes.

In pro sports, the pressure is on to take drugs simply to “make it,” never mind being a star. It is easy to joke about steroid use among professionals, or write it off as freedom of choice, but the influence on kids is undeniable. In the course of his work, Pound has found that “some kids were taking industrial quantities of stuff that was almost certain to kill them or at least ruin their health later on.” This is the only time when one might compare Richard Pound to Maude Flanders: he is certainly thinking of the children.

The NHL of course denies that they have a problem. What better way to prove it, then, than to institute a rigorous testing program? Flat-out denial of drug use is standard policy—even when athletes are caught, they rarely admit to doing it on purpose. Perhaps the issue is knowledge. Former hockey player Kelly Chase suggests that, as far as he knows, “Sudafed is not a banned substance.” No, it isn’t, though it was only in 2003 that pseudoephedrine was removed from WADA’s prohibited list. That doesn’t mean that taking large quantities of the stimulant in cold medicine form isn’t a) happening in the NHL, or b) dangerous. Sudafed is only one example of the type of drug a hockey player might use. Modafinil, another type of stimulant, is also on the banned list. The issue is not steroids—it is stimulants that are hockey’s problem drug.

The problem with drugs is not that some people think they are OK—no one publicly admits to drugs being OK. Athletes either say they are against drugs but are secretly taking them or they say they are against drugs and mean it—but must still face others who do. Pound recalls that when starting WADA, “there wasn’t a tremendous amount of research funding available [for] the analysis of the urine of perfectly healthy athletes.” Most of the money was rightfully going towards cancer research and the like. But doping is also an important issue because it speaks to the kind of society we inhabit. We live in a society that places a great deal of importance on entertainment and culture, of which sport is a very large part—if sport is dishonest, what does that say about our culture?

The solution might not even be to achieve drug-free sports. An old track coach of mine suggested that the world championships should be open to anyone and their doctor—offer up the prize money and let them try and build a better human. While such world championships may already be here, the Olympics have become just as tainted—there is no longer much distinction. The Olympics, he says, should return to its ideal of amateur sport testing the limits of humanity.

But Dick Pound sees a different future. WADA’s anti-doping code was first used at the Athens Olympics, but many governments needed time to making such a code part of their laws. Governments turned to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to make that happen. The Turin Olympics in February 2006 will be the first time that code will be officially enforced by all nations through the first International Convention Against Doping in Sport, as it was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO on October 19, 2005. It is a strong step in the direction of clean sport—sport which can be a positive role model; a healthy reflection of a healthy society.

John Lofranco takes breaks from rigorous training to push the limits of sports writing for Maisonneuve. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by John Lofranco.