Good afternoon, dear participants,
Sport is a universal language. Sports promotes physical strength and character. It is also an element of quality of life. According to global statistics, sports has constantly been recognised as one of the most favourite pastimes.
Sport represents certain values. It teaches us about morality. It builds character and useful everyday abilities. For example, it teaches us what giving means and enhances visual acuity: we know exactly where to pass the ball for the teammate who is in a better position. Also, honesty and integrity: be humble and congratulate opponents after losses or truly enjoy a well-deserved win. And stamina and tenacity: you have to practice hard to beat the competition.
These are the very same values shared by highly-developed communities that give welfare to everyone.
Grassroots sport is a part of our life, as important as family, professional career and other hobbies. But there will always be a young grassroots athlete, or athletes, wanting more: ready to work harder and spend more time perfecting their skills to overcome rivals, or whose agility, height or determination to grow better will catch the eye of a PE teacher or coach.
We all tend to think of sport as something that unites us and makes us equal irrespective of our age, physical or mental ability, or wealth. However, in the course of human history and in different societies sport has always played other roles as well.
In ancient Rome, panem et circencem (bread and games) were considered everything that people need to be happy.
In 20th century, during the Cold War, countries on the opposing sides competed for economic and military supremacy, as well as domination in sport.
There comes a time in the career of almost every athlete when they can no longer push their physical ability any higher. They can work out more, but their results will improve only marginally. So, they are faced with a tough decision, a painful choice in every sense of the word. They can either retire from their career that has taken so many years, training and pain. Or they can go on and accept that they will probably ‘stand next to the podium’ of winners at national or international competitions, or cheat and use performance-enhancing substances.
There are numerous factors that affect their choice.
Firstly, athlete’s personality. How good is their moral compass? Can they tell good from bad? Have they acquired a profession on top of their athletic career? Do they have something to do when they retire?
Secondly, the age at which they face this choice. For example, international level gymnasts begin their career as early as school. When they reach their teens, they might not be able to transition to that next level. Their future is in the hands of their coaches, parents and sports officials.
Thirdly, freedom of choice and freedom to decide their future. Will they be able to follow their dreams or will other circumstances, parents, coaches and sports officials confine them to their past and failed dreams.
Fourthly, athlete’s social responsibility to show the supremacy of a social structure or a state. And, fifthly, in many countries sporting career is the only way to escape poverty. Athletes do not want to be poor again. This list is by no means exhaustive.
There are different forms of doping. Cheating is getting more and more ‘sophisticated’ with every year. As soon as one substance is blacklisted, it is substituted by another.
The modern science of doping has made a huge progress since 70s and 80s when, for example, unusually deep voice of female athletes, resulting from use of anabolic steroids and male sex hormones, gave them away almost immediately. Now there is autologous blood transfusion and EPO, glycoprotein hormone produced by the body itself, that stimulates red blood cell production by the bone marrow and cannot be traced using regular doping control tests.
Athletes who use doping to enhance their performance in various weight categories resort to diuretics to lose weight before important competitions. Those who need a steady hand (like archers) use beta blockers. Gymnasts use growth inhibiting hormones to control their growth. This list is by no means exhaustive.
Drug advertisements in Latvia always end with a disclaimer ‘Unreasonable use of medicinal products is harmful for your health’. The same warning applies to athletes.
Athletes, coaches, sports medicine doctors and sports officials responsible for doping are all engaged in unfair competition and shall not be considered role models by children and youth. Moreover, athletes who use banned substances ruin their own health. It is unfair towards rivals and deceives spectators.
It takes more experts and more laboratory resources to detect more sophisticated forms of doping. It also drives up testing costs. Less wealthy countries and athletes lose the ‘game’ before it even starts.
Relationship between athletes involved in doping and anti-doping agencies reminds of the story about a hare and a hedgehog. Hedgehog, or international and national anti-doping agencies, need convincing evidence and efficient resources to be able to keep up and catch the hare. By resources I mean modern laboratory equipment, financial independence without influence of funders like governments and big sports organisations, internationally recognised standards and efficient sanctions against infringements. Again, this list is by no means exhaustive.
Potential harm to athlete’s health during active years, and especially after retirement, would be a convincing evidence.
In their teens, bodies of young and active athletes experience hormone imbalances, their bone density has not reached its peak yet, heart muscles may not be sufficiently strong. Performance enhancing drugs, especially steroids and sex hormones, may lead to further imbalances that may result in infertility both in male and female athletes, need to resort to artificial joints at a relatively young age or even sudden cardiac death. Again, this list is by no means exhaustive.
More and more often we hear about athletes from 70s and 80s being caught because they have either knowingly, or unknowingly, used PEDs and are now struggling with their disability.
However, to eradicate unfair practices in sports, the mindset of everyone must change, starting from athletes, coaches, sports officials all the way to large corporate sponsors who support olympic games and other international or national events. We, the spectators, have to accept that not all competitions will end in new world records, and it is better to have fair competition and healthy athletes.
Congratulations to Latvian Anti-Doping Agency and participants of the conference. I wish you all an interesting conference with many useful takeaways that lead to many wise decisions for the future of sports. Good luck!