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13 November 2015

Drugs aren't the problem, the gods are.

Drugs aren't the problem, the gods are.

You’ve spent your life preparing for this moment: a ruthless exercise program, a regimented diet, years of getting up at 4am – all will define the next race. While your friends have been partying late, eating for pleasure, sleeping until noon, you will now discover whether your endless sacrifices were worth it. A momentary glance left, then right.  Half a dozen competitors stand between you and glory – your name in history. Your body’s ready, the rippling muscles testimony to your incessant discipline. Fingers touch the start line. The crowd holds a collective breath. One question haunts you: will it count? No one remembers second place.   

I’ve met hundreds of sportsmen and women over the years: interviewed them after epic victories and soul-destroying defeats, commentated on their exploits, reported on their failures. I’ll never be surprised at another drug scandal. Today it’s Russia’s athletes. Yesterday it was Lance Armstrong. Tomorrow, who knows? When decades of hard work come down to one moment, who wouldn’t take a little something to nudge you ahead of the pack?   

The issue’s been around for thousands of years, only throughout history it’s often carried a different name: idolatry. And it’s my problem too.    

Ancient approaches to religion all centred around a simple principle - what I call the Santa Claus approach to faith. Stay on the gods’ nice list and avoid the naughty list: lots of sacrifices, activity and discipline should guarantee the gods reward you.  

Remind you of anything?   

Thousands of years have passed. The gods have changed their name. Our ways of reaching them have not. Today they’re called success, beauty, comfort, relationships, power, money, the 100-metre title. If I want them to reward me, I just need to work really hard to maximise success, or cover my failings. If I put sufficient effort into my appearance, maybe I’ll turn enough heads when I go out on Friday for that little kick of satisfaction that my beauty counts for something. Failing that, I’ll dress in a safe way that hides my bodily imperfections for fear of rejection. If I live with enough drive and focus in my work, perhaps I’ll earn the respect of my peers and the deep inner satisfaction that ‘I’m better.’ If I don’t, I’ll pretend that people’s social status doesn’t matter, and gloss over that promotion I missed because I didn’t need it anyway.   

The gods have different names, but they place on us equal demands. In sport the lure of success can lead to taking a banned substance. In life the temptations are more subtle and more numerous: gossip behind people’s backs, subtly implying we’re superior, cheating on expenses or trampling on others to get ahead, because money, power and success will surely meet our heart’s longings; obsessing about image so the gods of pleasure and ego reward me appropriately. You get the point.   

Yes, drugs in sport are bad. They should be stopped. All power to Seb Coe’s elbow. But before I jump on a soapbox, perhaps the most pertinent lesson from Russia’s doping scandal is in recognising it’s no worse than the idolatry in my own heart. Best way of not falling into the same subtle trap to be better than everyone else: find a different god to serve – maybe even opt out of the celebrity culture that creates such pressure to succeed in the first place.    

Now all’s to do is find a deity who puts others before self, whose kingdom is characterised by humility and generosity rather than greed and selfishness, a god who does the sacrificing for us. Can you think of anyone?  

When you cry out for help, let your collection ofidols save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away. But whoever takes refuge in me will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.” – Isaiah 57:13

by Andy Tilsley, senior leader at Christ Church London

Image CC: James Cridland