Tennis star Martina Hingis has announced her retirement from the game after her routine urine samples tested positive for cocaine at Wimbledon earlier this year. While she denies having used the drug, she says that she cannot face the prospect of a long, uphill battle to clear her name: potentially years of litigation with appeals and counter-appeals. At 27, and troubled by injuries, she already has difficulty playing at the top level of the sport. This positive test is career-ending for her.
I have no view, one way or the other, as to whether Hingis is telling the truth, though it is not immediately apparent how the drug test could be wrong. In her favour, a hair sample was tested on her initiative and apparently showed no sign of cocaine use, but that is not decisive. I don't really want to get into the technicalities of which tests are reliable, what they demonstrate, etc., because it would merely distract from the more important and interesting issue - why do sports authorities test for such drugs as cocaine in any event? I'm going to stick my neck out here and insist that the practice is unjustifiable.
Some drugs have the following properties. First, they genuinely provide competitors with an advantage in sporting competitition. As a result, if one competitor uses such a drug it puts pressure on others to do likewise. Second, they are dangerous to competitors' health. When you combine these two properties, it means that one competitor using such a drug is pressuring other competitors to do something harmful to their health. In those circumstances, it is quite sensible for those involved in the sport to get together to decide that such-and-such a drug will be banned by the sport, and that using it will thereafter be a form of cheating like any other breach of the code's rules to take unfair advantage. A person caught cheating in that way is, indeed, disgraced to exactly the same extent as any other cheat.
It is conceivable, I suppose, that someone very foolish could use cocaine in an attempt to gain an advantage - a rush of energy perhaps - but it is not seriously conceivable that this would be an effective strategy for sporting success. Playing tennis, or any other sport, under the influence of cocaine in no way puts pressure on other players to do so. In fact, the idea that an athlete such as Martina Hingis played at Wimbledon under the influence of cocaine is just laughable. Presumably what is being alleged is that she used the drug for recreational purposes, some time before the tournament, and that the urine samples contained a residue from that recreational use. On those facts, Hingis would have done nothing to have obtained an on-court advantage, and cannot seriously be accused of cheating. She would be no different from anyone else who has used cocaine recreationally - whether a fashion model, a barrister, a filing clerk, or a carpenter. So why is it any of the business of other players, the officials, or the general public?
The fact is that cocaine does not meet the criteria required for being a drug that it makes sense for the sport of tennis to ban. It does not confer any genuine advantage in sporting performance, and its use by one player cannot possibly pressure the other players on the tour to use it (on pain of being disadvantaged in competition).
Cocaine is, of course, illegal. However, that is a different issue. Its illegality is based on considerations that have nothing to do with any performance advantage that it might be thought to give athletes like Martina Hingis. In fact, I am strongly opposed to laws that ban drugs such as cocaine, whose benefits and dangers are well known. It should be up to the individual whether or not the risks are worth the benefits; for the state to make that decision for us by enacting criminal laws is, for a start, offensively, indeed outrageously, paternalistic. More generally, it is yet another case of the state overstepping proper boundaries of good governance by arrogating to itself the authority to decide the nature of a good life.
If someone decides that she wants to lead a life based around heavy (or perhaps cautious, in a case such as that alleged against Hingis) use of party drugs, then fine. He or she is the proper person to make that decision - not the state or some self-righteous electoral majority that supports it. I may not approve, but I'm not going to invoke the coercive power of the state to overrule her decision about what she does with her own life and her own body.
However, even if the laws against cocaine use could be justified, the underlying purpose of drug testing in sport is not to assist the police in invading the bodies of potential criminal suspects (without a warrant or other lawful authorisation). It is merely to ensure that no one in the relevant sport is using drugs in a way that is genuinely cheating. There is no reason to include cocaine - or any other recreational drug with no genuine performance benefit - on a list of substances banned by any sport, and there is no reason to test for it.
I can imagine that somebody might reply with the claim that elite athletes such as Hingis are "role models", and that society as a whole has an interest in ensuring that such people live squeaky-clean lives so that young people who imitate them will be equally squeaky-clean. I find that sort of claim ridiculous.
I'll waive the obvious point, that it is a joke to think that sports stars should be role models for anyone. There is no reason at all to think that somebody who is gifted in hitting a tennis ball, say, should be exemplary in other way - any more than someone who is very good at laying bricks or spraypainting car bodies or typing up legal documents ... or than someone not so good at those things. Still, there is this fatuous belief in our society that sports stars (but not, say, rock stars or highly-paid journalists) should be squeaky-clean models for kids to emulate. So let that go.
But if Martina Hingis discreetly used cocaine for recreational purposes on one or more occasions, some time before Wimbledon, why does it matter? The public, including whatever little girls might be using her as a role model, wouldn't even have known if not for the drug test. I can almost accept that we want sports stars to be discreet about their various vices and foibles (though only almost ... because where does it end? Are we going to insist, for example, that if you are a sports star you must never have a complicated sex life, or that you must never behave in any way whatsoever that the majority would not wish their children to imitate?). But once we start policing even their discreetly-conducted activities that have nothing to do with cheating at their chosen sports, we are overreaching with no justification whatsoever.
If - contrary to her strong denial - Martina Hingis did discreetly use cocaine for recreational purposes, then good luck to her. It was her choice, the drug should not even be illegal and in any event there was no basis for a warrant to test her, she was not cheating against her opponents ... and really this practice of policing athletes for the use of drugs that are not seriously performance enhancing should stop. Sporting bodies should never have gone down that path.
Hingis isn't even my favourite player by a long chalk - though she's matured in recent years, she has sometimes seemed like an immature brat, as with her notorious "half a man" comment about Amelie Mauresmo in 1999 - but she is in no way disgraced by these latest events.
It's her body. She didn't break the rules to gain an unfair advantage over other competitors. At worst, she broke an unjust criminal law.
Leave her alone.