‘Ultimate Price Principle’ poisons sport

IT IS not just the Lance Armstrongs of the cycling world who use banned drugs – a new report by the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (Circ) reveals a culture of doping in amateur cycling.

The comprehensive Circ report into the sport’s doping culture was released on Sunday, and might be summarised as follows: EPO is delicious.

Not in a strictly gastronomic sense, although you can well imagine the ramifications of that. It would take only a minor marketing twist to rebrand EPO as the latest essential super-juice. EPO bars popping up all over east London. Pinterest boards deluged with EPO smoothie recipes. All of which may be more imminent than you think.

“Masters races,” read the report, “were said to have middle-aged businessmen winning on EPO, some of them training as hard as professional riders and putting in comparable performances.”

Yes: even the weekend cyclists are now at it. Why do they do it? After all, a US study investigating doping in baseball found an almost perfect correlation between a player’s propensity to dope and how poor their home country was. In other words, the archetypal doper either has everything to lose or everything to gain.

But the EPO businessmen don’t fit into this tale. Rewards in amateur races – even in cycling-mad countries such as Italy and Belgium – are hardly life-changing, and the risks are legion.

EPO thickens the blood, increasing the risk of clotting, strokes or heart failure. Some users stop being able to produce red blood cells and end up dependent on EPO for life.

The answer may have something to do with the way we see and discuss sport in the 21st century. At its essence is something I call the “Ultimate Price Principle”.

Here it is in action, courtesy of Sky commentator Don Goodman during a recent Champions League game: “Ashley Cole doesn’t do enough to force Robben to take the ball to the right-hand side. And he’s paid the ultimate price.”

Our condolences to the Cole family. But the Ultimate Price Principle is everywhere, most notably in cricket commentary, where batsmen’s dismissals are routinely described with the same dolorous finality as the death of a statesman.

Then there are the endless moronic “inspirational” slogans you see in sportswear adverts, or posted by athletes on social media. Impossible is nothing. Second place is first loser. Pain is weakness leaving the body.

All of which serve merely to maximise the gulf between success and failure, teaching every successive generation that anything but victory is intolerable. Which is understandable, if not quite forgivable. Part of sport’s intrinsic entertainment is its all-or-nothing, glory-or-death delusion: a conceit we all happily swallow.

“Glory-or-mild-disappointment-followed-by-continuation-of-privileged-existence-in-prosperous-western-country” may not sell quite as many cable packages, but does at least have the virtue of truth.

Over time, this idea – defeat as demise, disgrace, death – begins to mutate. Humans dope. Horses get doped. Dogs at Crufts get poisoned.

A society pitted against itself straps on an Apple Watch, logs into a fitness app like Strava, and competes with the entire world for virtual badges.

Somewhere along the line, we need to make our peace with losing, to detach enjoyment from triumph. For we all pay the ultimate price in the end.

– The Telegraph