Does anybody remember the drugs test Rio Ferdinand forgot to take? It was a little over five years ago: on the 23rd of September 2003. He was asked to take a drugs test at Manchester United's training ground, left that venue without complying and as a result served an eight-month suspension from all professional football, beginning in January 2004 and extending past the European Championships in summer of that year.
It was accepted that he had not avoided the test because he had anything to hide: if that had been suspected, the ban would almost certainly have been for two years and his professional career would have been in jeopardy. But it was clear that he had no reasonable excuse for missing the test and although neither Manchester United nor England were happy, there were plenty of people within the game who thought that Ferdinand was probably lucky to get away with the ban he received. You cannot refuse or otherwise avoid a drugs test: all professional sportspeople understand that, as do their teammates, trainers, managers, employers, advisers and agents. Rio Ferdinand understood that and failed to take the test anyway. Hence his ban.
I was reminded of this episode when the kerfuffle occurred involving Vasily Ivanchuk's stupid and indefensible refusal to take a drugs test at the end of the Olympiad, for which refusal he has received a similarly indefensible amount of sympathy, some of it from people who should know better.
Now, some issues in this whole affair need disentangling. It is not necessary, for instance, to agree with drugs testing in chess to think that Ivanchuk's failure to take a test is indefensible. I'm very much not in favour of drugs testing in chess: rather the contrary. While my drugs experiences (both in and outside chess) have been rather conservative and almost entirely restricted to alcohol, if any of my opponents wish, by way of contrast, to experiment with mescaline or psilocybe cubensis prior to or during a game I am very happy to encourage them to do so. All in the service of scientific endeavour, the pursuit of pleasure and my winning more games of chess, three causes which I think I can enthusiastically support.
Drugs testing, by contrast, I can't support with any enthusiasm at all: nor the application of chess to join the Olympics, which is probably doomed as a project and the most likely practical consequence of which would be to kill off the Olympiad, one of my favourite events in chess. (Indeed, if the net result of this particular farce is to strengthen the Olympiad at the expense of the Olympic bid, then not everything about it will have turned out to be stupid.)
However, I'm also a strong supporter of the principle that sporting events should take place according to the rules and that no competitor is above them. None. Not Garry Kasparov, not Bobby Fischer, not Rio Ferdinand. None. They are obliged to play according to the rules under which they have agreed to play. They may disagree with them and say so. They may even on occasion choose to defy them openly, on a point of principle, and take the consequences. But they are not above them. They may not ignore them. They may not say, either overtly or in effect, "these rules do not apply to me, because of who I am".
Now there are many players who get emotionally upset when they lose a game of chess in traumatic circumstances. Vasily Ivanchuk, who is known to take his chess emotionally, is one, and the present writer is another: on those grounds I can sympathise with Ivanchuk and understand him. However, even if we take his emotional state into account (or accept Rio Ferdinand's defence that he forgot about his test) it's useful to remember that these people were not on their own. When Ferdinand was asked to take his test, there were Manchester United officials present: Ivanchuk was part of the Ukranian team. In either situation there were other people present whose responsibility it was to try and make sure that the test was taken. It's a failure not just of the individual (which is primarily the case) but also of the organisation who they were representing.
Now the question is - do we really want chessplayers, or footballers, or athletes or cyclists or tennis players or golfers, to be able to ignore the rules when it suits them? Even if we do not personally agree with those rules, even if we understand that people have emotional reactions which cause them to behave irrationally or forgetfully, even if we dislike the authority which has the responsibility to enforce them? Andybody who cheers on Ivanchuk has to ask whether they really want the biggest players to be bigger than the game itself. Is that really where you want chess to go? Have you really thought about what happens if it does? Is that a box you really want to open?
But of course that box is probably open already, if we are to be honest about it. It is highly unlikely that FIDE have the clout to back up any decision they take, unless that decision is to accept Ivanchuk's excuses and decide to impose no penalty (save perhaps a modest fine). The reason is that they know that if it comes down to it, leading tournaments are likely to prefer to invite Ivanchuk to play and call FIDE's bluff. And I think it would be a bluff - whereas I cannot imagine a cycle race or tennis tournament accepting a player who was serving a ban.
Which to my mind, tells us something else. There is a lot of complaining from leading grandmasters about their lot in chess. The truth is that they have fewer obligations and more influence than their contemporaries in almost any other sport that I can think of. Almost no other leading sportspeople can, for instance, pick and choose the events they play in to quite the extent that one can in chess: not in tennis, not in motor racing, not in golf. I can only think of boxing, among genuinely worldwide sports, that can compare, and boxing is not an example any helthy sport should seek to imitiate.
By and large, in chess, it's the top players who have the clout. To some extent that's a good thing - but it's not entirely a good thing, especially not if it makes them bigger than the rules. And their constant tiresome complaining that the truth is otherwise - that's not a good thing at all.
What happened in football in 2003? The richest football club in the world and their record transfer were shown not to be bigger than the sport and its rules. That's a good example for chess. It's an example chess should be able to follow. I doubt we will. I doubt we can.
[the views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author, as per usual.]
[Images: Amazon, Chessbase]