David Owen

Another week, another afternoon spent engrossed in a document examining the pharmacological side of elite sport, in this case, a report entitled Combatting Doping in Sport, published by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the UK's House of Commons.

And not for the first time, it was a detail mentioned almost in passing that really got to me.

It came in paragraph 65 and was repeated in paragraph 66; what it said was that 70 per cent of the British Olympic swimming team suffered from asthma.

70 per cent!

Here is the relevant passage from the report, for which the inquiry started in August 2015:

"Our predecessors received briefings from several doctors...

"They were told that, on average, 20 per cent of British Olympians have asthma, higher than the UK population average of about eight per cent.

"Some sports are 'respiratory-heavy', such as: swimming, where 70 per cent suffer from asthma, probably exacerbated by breathing in chemicals used in swimming pools; cycling, where between 30 to 40 per cent of elite cyclists are affected; and about 25 to 30 per cent of footballers and rugby players."

The focus of the MPs was on cycling and a class of medicines called corticosteroids, so they moved swiftly on, pausing only to comment approvingly on the "effective management" of the swimmers' condition, which had not required any "banned treatments" and therefore no therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs). 

I am afraid that the figure left me staring aghast for several seconds at my computer screen thinking - again, not for the first time - that elite sport really isn't very good for you.

Swimming has been linked with an increased risk of asthma ©Getty Images
Swimming has been linked with an increased risk of asthma ©Getty Images

At risk of stating the obvious - and while making it clear it is not my intention to single out swimming, which just happens to have been the subject of a statistic that caught my eye - this is not a great message for sport to be conveying.

I say this not so much for the Olympic athletes themselves: it is at least debatable whether an increased risk of a condition such as asthma is a price worth paying for a shot at being a national hero.

But of course Olympians are la crème de la crème.

For every athlete who makes it to the podium at world-leading events, how many are there who run similar health risks without the compensation of that potentially life-changing upside?

And then there are parents: reading a paragraph such as that - in a Parliamentary report, no less - would really make me agonise about encouraging a gifted youngster to pursue her dreams, knowing how few succeed in fulfilling them.

There is also the question of mixed messages from a public policy perspective. 

Governments have taken to encouraging grass-roots sports participation, on the whole sensibly, as part of their drive to control obesity and rein in avoidable healthcare costs as much as possible.

How does that square with an elite sector where part of the price of success can be, seemingly, a significantly increased risk of contracting a condition such as asthma?

Having absorbed the rest of the much-publicised report, I would say there are two issues at least here.

One is the quantity of pharmaceuticals, additives and supplements top athletes may be encouraged to consume on the way, they hope, to the pinnacle.

Another is the intensity of the training they may feel driven to undertake, the effect that prolonged and/or repetitive sessions might have on their bodies and, again, the substances which they might be encouraged to take to help those bodies cope and ward off possible injury.

Such is the understandable lust for success in modern sport - fuelled in some cases by the potential to earn truly extraordinary financial rewards - that it is fiendishly difficult to imagine how this particular genie might be put back into its bottle.

I have no doubt there are top athletes who fret that if they are not spending almost every minute somehow furthering their ambition to be the world's best at their chosen discipline, even if it is only by resting, their rivals will be out stealing a march on them.

What a contrast with the days, not so long ago, of the late, very much lamented Sir Roger Bannister, perhaps the most gifted all-rounder this side of the Renaissance.

Social media has been full of admiration for him in recent days.

This contribution from one Keith Burge on Twitter was one of many which caught my eye: "On the 6th of May 1954 Sir Roger Bannister did a shift at St Mary's Hospital in London, then sharpened his running spikes in the hospital lab, took the train to Oxford, grabbed some lunch, walked to the track and then ran a mile in under four minutes."

Does more need to be done to protect young athletes from the strain of high-level sport? ©Getty Images
Does more need to be done to protect young athletes from the strain of high-level sport? ©Getty Images

Bannister did not have the luxury (not that he would have seen it that way) of being a full-time athlete; yet he still won the race to burst through one of sport's most fabled barriers.

We cannot, of course, revert to those more innocent times; nor, I suspect, would we truly want to.

But sport desperately needs to recapture something of the aura of wholesomeness Bannister embodied.

In adult elite sport, it may be too late: I just don't see how we can realistically break with today's culture of single-minded, "whatever it takes", obsessive shading into monomaniacal, pursuit of glory/success.

The rewards, though usually for the few not the many, are simply too great and the margins too fine.

Yes, part of elite sport's audience seems to be growing progressively more sceptical.

And, yes, they would probably prefer if more winners were 21st century Bannisters, with a broad enough outlook to assign sport its proper place.

But nice losers do not tend to put many bums on seats.

What I think we can and should do is strive to make sure that teenagers do not have a Stakhanovite dedication to one esoteric sporting discipline or another forced upon them before they are capable of properly evaluating their options in life and the risk-reward balance of aiming for the top of the athletic tree.

Is there a case for a sort of non-proliferation treaty of sport, whereby authorities sign up to strict limits on intensive training and supplement/pharmaceutical use for athletes, no matter how gifted, below the age of 18?

The drawback is that such a pact would be pretty much impossible to police.

But it just might kick-start a process of restoring the sense of proportion we have lost – a loss which lies at the root of so many of elite sport's worsening problems.