Winning in sport ... at what cost?

WHATEVER it takes.

We demand our sporting heroes to be the best.

We demand them to be the strongest, the most powerful and electrifying athletes on show.

Participation is great and having a real crack at taking on the best is courageous, but really, when it comes to elite sports, we want the win.

Big sport brings big money and big expectations.

This can start to blur the lines for some athletes on how far they can push for a competitive edge on the way to glory – especially if there is the monetary backing for support.

It tastes so sour when our favoured heroes fall from grace while striving to be the best.

Drug use, or the more palatable euphemism “supplements”, has dominated headlines in Australian sport and worldwide this year.

It started with Lance and Oprah, spread through the Essendon Football Club and National Rugby League ranks, even claiming Jamaican sprint sensation Asafa Powell after he won the hearts of fans at the Stawell Gift last Easter.

Veteran Australian cyclist Michael Rogers is the latest to highlight athletes’ biggest ethical dilemma – what can you risk to be the best?

He has tested positive for banned substance clenbuterol and is provisionally suspended by Cycling Australia.

Cycling is a sport with a history undeniably riddled with drugs but what was most shocking about Rogers, second only to Cadel Evans in Australia’s cycling elite, is that many thought his generation – the next tier after Lance Armstrong – had moved on from this whole tainted phase.

Rogers has denied cheating, blaming a case of food poisoning in Asia, just like Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador before him, but it has only raised more questions as to how hard Rogers has been working to prolong his fading career well beyond its use-by date.

Five-time Olympic medallist Anna Meares told ABC Grandstand yesterday she was frustrated, as an elite cyclist, to constantly have to answer media questions about doping.

“As professional athletes, we need to take responsibility for what we’re putting in our mouths and into our body on a food basis, on a supplements basis and on a medical basis,” Meares said.

“That needs to be really hit home to everyone watching at home and all athletes participating and representing Australia.”

This was a line emphasised by Ballarat’s Olympians in January when investigations were launched into the Essendon Football Club.

In particular, rower Anthony Edwards said he was proud to come a clean fourth in the lightweight men’s four in the London Olympic Games, while beach volleyballer Tamsin Hinchley said she operated on a high level of integrity solely for herself.

They say that the rollercoaster of emotions in winning and losing, but doing so to the best of your ability, is the true essence of sport to them.

What is the true essence of sport to a team, like Essendon whose marking tag this year was ironically ‘whatever it takes’?

AFL is a massive business and money has helped improve the standard and hype of the game immensely over decades.

Powerhouse Collingwood had the funds to set the trend for altitude training, mimicking rich American football codes, and now it is the norm for clubs to keep up pre-season training. Club facilities are state-of-the-art and AFL players, as elite full-time athletes, are surrounded by teams of people telling them what to eat, how to train, what products to use and how to manage their money, to always get the best out of each and every one of them.

The deepening Essendon saga is the sinister side of this.

The pay-offs to coach James Hird, the passing of blame to sports scientists and administrators, are these part of the cost to do whatever it takes?

How much are we, as sporting fans, responsible?

We want world records, decorated heroes and amazing sporting feats.

Sporting teams are always looking for radical cutting-edge ways to serve this up – legal or illegal.

The World Anti-Doping Authority and national anti-doping bodies across the world will forever be chasing methods to stamp out drug cheating as long as there are those who are prepared to take a risk, whatever it takes, to stay ahead in their game.

This is the murky side of sporting glory.

melanie.whelan@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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