My first real brush with drugs and sport occurred one mid-winter day in the seedy rundown underbelly of a small-town rugby grandstand. It continued later that night in the less-than-salubrious, but slightly more glamorous (if anything about mid-70s provincial New Zealand could properly command such a description) environs of the faculty ball.
OPINION: It began at the bottom of a ruck and involved the excruciating manipulation of an ankle into an unnatural position. I still bear the scars: an unsightly varicose roadmap of dead-end trails and venous ellipses traversing my lower right tarsus.
But back to the drugs . . . nothing so fancy as human growth hormone; not so much as a sniff of EPO; no blood doping; not a whiff of anabolics; no trace of peptides. No cocaine, either: just a few aspirin and, later that night - hobbling round the dance floor to the dulling rhythms of Creedence Clearwater Revival - a testosterone-driven desire to score, combined with a truckload of alcohol to smother the agony.
I drove my swollen, aching ankle to the hospital the next morning in a mate's old green Ford Anglia. A few hours later, I rang a friend to come and drive me, and my broken, plastered foot, home.
That's it really, unless you count the time when, as a long-haired flanker, I furtively blew a fortune - and $30 was a fortune then to a penniless student - on an ounce of peppermint tea. Small beer in the scheme of things and, take it from me, peppermint tea really is better brewed in hot water and imbibed out of a mug rather than smoked. Speaking of mugs . . .
Nonetheless, I am moved to reminisce by the revelations out of Australia these past few days: by the tsunami of shock, horror and indignation at the notion that a number of that nation's sporting heroes, and teams, may be shown to be drug cheats; by the proposition that these poster boys for all that is good about Australian masculinity - and by not such a huge stretch, some of our own - may walk on feet of clay.
This comes with warnings about the possible involvement of criminal gangs in the supply of the illicit substances, of unscrupulous sports scientists, and allegations of match fixing and betting syndicates. It follows a hard-hitting report out of Europe of the rottenness infecting world football.
Why anybody is surprised about any of this, especially in the wake of the Lance Armstrong imbroglio, is the real mystery. For years Armstrong cheated and bullied his way to fame and fortune while his whistleblowers were ruined by intimidation and legal thuggery, and cycling officials proved wilfully blind.
Why? Because of the money and because of the popular myths and overblown currency we invest in sporting prowess. In Armstrong's case, too many people - including commercial interests - had too much to lose by following the unpalatable leads that, in retrospect, were amply evident. Fortunes and reputations were at stake.
Without wishing to tarnish the standing of the majority of honest top-tier modern sportsmen and women who have achieved their successes by sheer dint of dedication, determination and application of physical skills, a case can be made that the rise and rise of so-called "professionalism" in modern sport has coincided with a converse decline in grace.
Sad to say, and it's an ancient adage, but money corrupts. As does the surfeit of glamour and adulation we lavish today upon these modern gladiators, while turning aside from the less couth aspects of their lifestyles and the questionable values that some of these embody.
Once we played sport for fun, for the camaraderie, to feel the physical essence of being alive, the dull ache of raking sprig marks down the back soothed by a hot shower, anaesthetised in the endorphin-enriched arena of the aftermatch: a hot meat pie, a cold jug of beer and, OK, maybe the covert glance of a girl you fancied on the other side of the clubrooms.
Now spoiled, overpaid, muscle-bound Adonis-like "role-models" play for the cash, for the quick chemical hit of the illegal substance du jour, the fast cars and the promise of the pneumatic, surgically enhanced groupies in the hotel spa pool.
Give me the hot pie and cold beer any day, though the last time I pointed in print to the behavioural deficiencies of Australian league players, some of whose top exponents were self-confessed drug cheats, and others who were frequently before the courts on charges of assault, sexual and otherwise, I was practically thrown out of the pub.
- Sunday Star Times
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