21 January 2009

Lines and line-outs

The news that Matt Stevens, the England rugby union player, has tested positive for a recreational drug re-ignites the debate, yet again, on the use of such substances by sporting people.

Stevens has a habit, judging by his rather confessional statement once news of his misdemeanour was made public, and is therefore in need of help as much as pity or retribution. He will, of course, get all three.

Statutorily, he will be barred from playing competitive sport for two years. This is fine if you hold a zero tolerance view on any drugs in sport. Contradictory opinions are prevalent when it comes to cocaine (Stevens' drug of choice) and similarly recreational substances. On the one hand, possession of them is illegal by law, but on the other their effect on sporting performance is non-existent. Therefore they have committed a lesser offence in sport but a greater offence in the legal system to which we all must adhere.

Had Stevens taken a performance-enhancing substance - anabolic steroids, for example - he would have been cast as a cheat, which in sporting circles is a bigger offence than being a mere fool. Yet this - possessing or using performance-enhancing substances - is not illegal in law. Does this mean one body is right and one wrong, or do their differing agendas make them both right?

None of this assists Stevens, who has been most penitent since the news broke, but must have known that with dope-testing so stringent in top-class sport, each line he sniffed (he has confirmed nothing about the actual drug. but it is known from other sources to be cocaine) could be the one that caught him out and ruined his reputation. The more liberal in sport would say that if it doesn't affect his performance then it should be not an offence, but part of the issue with grasping recreational users in sport is about saving them from themselves, and stopping those they influence from following a similar path. In that sense, having his collar felt by his superiors now could be the best thing to happen to Stevens.

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