Recently I’ve been reading the life story of Vince Lombardi, the legendary American football coach credited with coining the phrase “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”. Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers won four NFL titles in the 1960s, including the first two Super Bowls, and produced a string of future Hall of Fame stars.
Lombardi was more than a football coach. During the Packers’ glory years and up until his early death, his name was so synonymous with success that both the Republicans and the Democrats considered wooing him to run for vice-President.
Known for his totally uncompromising thirst for success and demand for unflinching discipline, players both loved and hated him. Some readers will also know that Jack Gibson drew heavily on Lombardi’s methods and proceeded to revolutionise rugby league in the 1970s.
But reading about the rituals and behaviour in Lombardi’s dressing rooms, you notice a funny thing: most of the players smoked. Lombardi smoked three packets a day. They smoked before the game, at half time and, win, lose or draw, after the game.
One of the heaviest smokers of the lot was Paul “the Horn” Hornung, Lombardi’s star halfback and celebrated drinker, playboy and all-round party animal. Despite - or perhaps partly because of - all this he was known as the “Golden Boy” and not even a year’s suspension from football for gambling on games dented the adoration of fans or stopped his Hall of Fame election.
Sports history is full of Paul Hornungs. In fact, the idea that you have to behave like a Cistercian monk in order to be a professional athlete is a pretty recent invention, probably first appearing in the 1980s.
But the idea that you must live clean in order to play well is not only new, it is also a lie.
Whatever else Ben Cousins’ trials and tribulations tell us, they show that sport and drug taking can mix. Don’t they? This is not to say that a person should take drugs or that drug taking is something we want to encourage, but it does show, quote spectacularly I think, that taking illegal drugs does not necessarily stop a person from being an elite athlete.
After all, Ben Cousins was the best in his sport, just like Andrew Johns, at the same time as being, well, a drug addict. And, as I say, Cousins and Johns are not, by any stretch, exceptions.
Why is this important? So much of our drug education, particularly but not only in schools, is based on lies. We tell children that taking drugs will kill you, that it’s not much fun, that you’ll lose all your friends.
And we use elite athletes to tell children that drugs and sport don’t mix.
The trouble with this is that the world is full of people who seem to prove all of this wrong. Research in Australia consistently shows that the down-and-out junkie represents only a small minority of the country’s drug takers. Heroin and cannabis users, as well as the seriously alcoholic, often conduct lives that look, at least from the outside, just like yours and mine. They go to work. They go home. They look normal.
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