If religion were the opium of the people in the 19th century, then sports are the opium of the people in the 21st century. Hidden in this comical assertion is the true, insidious nature of the international sports industry, which exploits aspiring athletes for the sole goal of making profits.
It’s been nearly a year and a half since the Russian hacking group Fancy Bears released medical records from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that revealed suspicious, albeit legal, use of banned substances by professional athletes through special dispensations known as Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE). Prominent world athletes like tennis players Venus and Serena Williams, gymnast Simone Biles, and soccer star Carlos Tevez, were all revealed by Fancy Bears to have used TUEs to take substances on WADA’s prohibited list in order to account for a medical condition. Many of these athletes received TUEs as the appropriate medication for their condition, but one athlete’s record stood out.
Bradley Wiggins, the noted cyclist who won the Tour de France with Team Sky in 2012, received intramuscular injections of triamcinolone acetonide in order to account for asthma and pollen allergies before the Tour de France in 2011 and 2012 and before the Giro d’Italia in 2013. This is the same drug that Lance Armstrong tested positive for at the 1999 Tour. (Armstrong was able to shirk punishment by producing a forged prescription for saddle-sores.) In addition, anecdotes from other cyclists convicted of doping suggest the potency of triamcinolone, especially when used in combination with synthetic testosterone and erythropoietin (EPO). Wiggins did himself no favors when he contradicted his medical record in his 2012 autobiography “Bradley Wiggins: My Time” by claiming to have never used needles.
The link between his Tour win and triamcinolone use is suspicious at best and damning at worst. But Wiggins and the other athletes who utilize TUEs are merely symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself.
Sports and the athletes associated with them are, in reality, subjects of the global capitalist industry, with their predominant focus always on earning money. The fight for winning races, scoring touchdowns, and hitting home runs is only partially for the love of competition; it’s always for the love of money. Perhaps one of the best examples of this focus is the National Football League. In 2016, the total value of all NFL franchises reached a monumental $74.8 billion, with an average value of $2.3 billion for each team. The biggest contract of all time in the NFL is Matthew Stafford’s five-year $135 million deal. Where does this money come from? The answer is advertising. In 2017, the NFL’s total revenue was $14 billion. Over half, $7.8 billion, was derived from advertising. But other sports rely even more heavily on the marketing divisions of corporations.
In professional cycling, on the UCI World Tour, Australian team Mitchelton-Scott obtains 90 percent of its budget from sponsorships and advertisers. And halfway through the 2017 Vuelta a España, American team Cannondale Drapac announced that unless it received $7 million, the team would have to shut down after a sponsor dropped out at the last minute.
When it comes to doping, sponsors tend to vacate the premises. After the US Anti-Doping Agency’s accusations against Armstrong in 2012, Nike immediately dropped the former cyclist, and Rabobank withdrew its $19.6 million sponsorship from its team. In the wake of doping scandals associated with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Adidas, the largest sponsor of the IAAF, ceased its backing of the organization. And in reference to doping cases at the Olympics, Coca-Cola is on record as saying, “[Doping] damages the sport, it damages the Olympic ideals.”
Taking a step back, it has become clear that the incentive structure for athletes and governing bodies of sports is all messed up. Athletes are inspired to dope in order to earn huge contracts. The teams of these athletes want magnificent, possibly doping-inspired performances from athletes because it attracts more sponsors. After all, sponsors will get the most exposure from the best-performing teams and athletes. Likewise, the governing bodies of sports that manage huge sporting events like the Olympics or the World Cup desire record-breaking performances that generate the thrilling headlines on NBC.com. And sponsors don’t want to be associated with doping or cheating in sports.
The logical result of all these desires and incentives is a decrease in the reports of doping. If athletes are going to continue to use banned substances, then it is in the financial interests of all other parties involved that those athletes not be caught.
Why then, would the USADA try and bring down Armstrong? After the USADA stripped the cyclist of his seven Tour de France titles, the federal government filed a $100 million lawsuit against him for defrauding the U.S. Postal Service, which sponsored Armstrong’s team from 2000-2004.
Perhaps the situation is not as transparent as the above analysis might suggest. What would account for the investigation and eventual ban of the Russian Olympic team after their state-sponsored doping program?
But the one crystal clear fact about the global sports industry is their desire for money. The doping, cheating, sponsorships, international competitions, etc., are all part of the scheme by the world’s top capitalists to satisfy their one, ultimate desire: profit. And in that reality, I find watching sports not very enjoyable. I suppose I’m getting tired of the opium.
Cormac Chester can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.