ANDRE Agassi’s revelation that he took illicit drugs during his playing career was no great shock.
You only had to read John McEnroe’s book, Serious, to see that tennis players know there are easier ways to get high than performing an overhead lob.
What Agassi’s timely confession has done is, once again, raise questions over the way sporting bodies react to positive drug tests by high-profile athletes.
Again, nothing new about that.
The list of athletes who have had damning drug results forgiven, forgotten or simply ignored, is a who’s who of sporting super-stardom.
Other sports actively and unashamedly protect their fallen heroes. The AFL steadfastly stands by its “three-strikes” policy, allowing those who fail drug tests to repeat offend twice more before they are publicly named.
The US Professional Golf Association – which finally introduced drug-testing last year after prolonged public and government pressure – goes further. While agreeing to name those who test positive to performance-enhancing drugs (of which there have been none so far) they will not announce any results for so called “recreational drugs”.
Then there are those that are more selective in who they do or do not “out”. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, World Anti Drug Agency president Dick Pound accused the US track-and-field team of a long-term program of organised drug cheating.
“They have demonstrated over the past few years that they have been involved in a sleazy, concerted program which has encouraged coaches and used athletes in order to subvert fair competition,” he said.
The previous year it was claimed by a former US Olympic Committee official that Carl Lewis had tested positive to small amounts of illegal stimulants three times in 1988 but was still allowed to compete in the Seoul Olympics and beyond.
Ironically, Lewis was handed the 100m gold medal at Seoul when Canada’s Ben Johnson was disqualified after failing a post-race drug test.
The feeling in athletics circles was that Johnson was just one of several drug cheats in that race but he had been a scapegoat – the one chosen to take the rap and prove that the sport was clean because, as British Olympic silver medallist Steve Cram put it three years later, “he was Canadian, black and not too smart”.
In other words, Johnson wasn’t the type of athlete the sport needed, and Lewis was.
Just as Agassi – one of the most popular and supposedly clean-cut players in a sport that depends on star power to attract TV revenue and sponsorship dollars – was required to appear clean by those who ran the sport of tennis.
How else can you explain ATP Tour officials swallowing Agassi’s explanation that his pal, “Slim”, had a habit of spiking his soft drinks with the drug crystal meth – as you do – and that he, Agassi, had inadvertently picked up one of Slim’s drug-laced drinks, innocently taken a sip and immediately given new meaning to the slogan: “Things go better with Coke”.
“Sure thing, Andre,” they said. “Sounds perfectly feasible to us. Let’s let the whole thing slide, shall we? Forget it ever happened.”
Not that we in Australia should be laughing. For years we have operated on the premise that, while athletes from other countries are drug cheats, dinky-di athletes who test positive are victims of circumstance.
Other nationalities take masking agents. Ours take headache pills, slimming tablets or, in the case of shooter Phillip Adams at the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games, blood-pressure medication.
When team officials brushed off Adams’ positive test with little more than a “hey, this is Phil we’re talking about here. He wouldn’t cheat”, an English journalist described Australia’s drug policy as the “Good Chap” theory.
There’s plenty of it going around and the higher up the totem pole you go, the more prevalent it is.
In his biography The Two of Me, rugby league champion Andrew Johns intimated that, while he never actually failed a drug test, it was inconceivable that Newcastle Knights officials had not realised he was running amok on drugs.
Certainly everyone else in Newcastle did.
Which raises the question: If it had been a less-gifted player loading drugs into his system and staggering through life, would club officials have still looked the other way?
The same with Agassi. If he had been an unknown, ranked 141 in the world, rather than a (then) three-time major title winner and Olympic gold medallist, would the game’s administrators have been quite as quick to accept his cock-and-bull story about Slim and his spiked soft drink?
Of course we’ll never know – and, even now, Agassi will never be punished. He might have been stupid enough to get caught taking drugs, but he was smart enough not to tell anyone about it until four years after the World Anti Drug Agency’s statute of limitations had expired.
He does, however, believe that his many fans will forgive him his supposedly momentary lapse.
And, of that, he can be … positive.