In 1988 Linford Christie failed his first drugs test at the Seoul Olympics. That same year, my dad, Arthur White, won the first of four world titles in a powerlifting career that almost cost him – and us – everything.
Sometime in the early 80s, when I was still at primary school and the world of performance-enhancing drugs was still a crude and embryonic one, he sustained an injury. A bloke at the gym suggested steroids might speed his recovery. He was reluctant, but he needed to get better fast; he had a competition coming up. Over the years, steroids led to amphetamines, and amphetamines to cocaine. Before anyone knew it, everything imploded.
There is much discussion at the moment about the systematic use of performance-enhancing drugs. State-sponsored doping programmes (Russia) or endemic use within a sport (cycling and Team Sky) are inexcusable and need to be tackled at the highest level. Anti-doping programmes are still under resourced, despite recent promises by the UK government to increase their funding. But beyond the motivations for national glory and personal or corporate riches there is another, more basic human instinct driving drug abuse in sport that may be harder to combat: the desire to win.
As children, we were never in any doubt about the importance of sport – and specifically winning – to my dad. I was born on the way back from his first British championships. Holidays were planned around competitions, and took place only in locations with a gym nearby. We had a chest freezer in the garage full of whole chickens. We knew it wasn’t quite normal, but who ever gets to be world champion by being normal? In the world of amateur sport, when success comes with little promise of fame or fortune, systematic drivers of drug abuse do not always apply. In these cases, the same obsessive attitude that drives a person to succeed is the very thing that may make them susceptible to elite sport’s biggest temptation.
Perhaps because so few elite athletes ever admit to drug use even when caught, we rarely hear the stories of those around them who are affected by the physical and mental side-effects of performance-enhancing drugs. But you don’t have to look too hard at the gossip columns to piece together a likely picture. Steroid abuse affected my dad as it does many people. He became aggressive, overly confident and reckless. Like many athletes, he began using amphetamines alongside steroids to give him a boost, first for competitions, but soon much more regularly. He was a strong man, used to being in control. He began using drugs to improve his performance, but forgot they were also highly addictive and could alter his personality.
By 1989 he was addicted to cocaine and in debt. He had an affair and left us, the first of many times he’d do so over the next five years. He ended up in a bedsit, working as an illegal debt collector. Depression, a common side-effect of steroid abuse, led to binge drinking and suicide attempts. But when I railed against his latest betrayal, my mum would simply hold me and say: “It’s not him Emma, it’s the drugs.” I couldn’t understand it then, but I do now.
In 1993, my dad went cold turkey for the last time. He found a faith, started seeing a counsellor. When he registered at the doctor’s as a drug addict, they said his heart was the size of a football. With the combination of steroids and cocaine he’d been taking, it was amazing he hadn’t dropped dead of a heart attack. Others, such as the former World’s Strongest Man Jón Páll Sigmarsson, weren’t so lucky. He died that same year, aged just 32.
My parents rescued their marriage and in the years since, my dad has traveled the world telling his story. When asked why he did it, the answer is always the same. “Lifting was my god,” he says. “It was everything to me. The drugs just let me train harder.” The irony is that in his case, probably like many others, they didn’t make him that much better. In 1981, before he began using drugs, he won his first European championships. With a 340kg squat, a 197.5kg bench press and a 367.5kg dead lift, he was as good as he’d ever be.
Years later, I asked my dad about a survey I’d seen in a bodybuilding magazine. Would you take a drug, it asked, that would guarantee you became Mr Universe but gave you only 10 years to live? Chillingly, the majority of respondents said yes. “Of course,” he shrugged. “I would. Or I would have, back then. It was everything, winning.” Now that’s a powerful motivator, and one that it is going to be difficult to ever overcome.