What’s the problem with doping?

This post was written by Owen on August 28, 2010
Posted Under: Drugs,Sports

Image: puliarf/flickr

Over the past few weeks and months stories have been surfacing suggesting that Lance Armstrong, seven time-winner of the Tour de France, cancer survivor, Livestrong founder and inspiration to millions, may have taken performance-enhancing drugs at some point during his career. Given that he’s a professional cyclist, this is hardly a surprise, though it will probably be a disappointment to his fans. But far more important than the question of whether he used illegal performance-boosting drugs or not is the issue of why it matters. Not ‘why it matters to those of us with no interest in professional cycling’, though that’s a fair question too, but why it matters if he took drugs at all. I simply don’t see the problem with having performance-enhancing drugs in sport.

The main objection to these drugs seems to be some hazy notion that it’s ‘cheating’ to take them – you know, because they make athletes perform better than they would have otherwise, in much the same way as, um…training. Or simply taking one or more of the huge number of legal supplements like creatine, a substance which builds muscle mass and is used by huge numbers of professional athletes. So what’s the difference between the legal stuff and all the substances which are banned? What makes creatine OK but anabolic steroids verboten? Sure, creatine can be produced naturally by the human body, but blood doping’s banned, and I’m pretty sure human bodies are capable of producing blood as well.

The principal difference appealed to by supporters of the ban, of course, is that most prohibited performance-enhancing drugs are much more dangerous for those who take them than those substances which are permitted. Now, if I was Reuben then at this point I’d probably launch into an impassioned defence of individual liberty. I might point out that simply making the decision to become a professional sportsperson is taking a serious risk with your health in any case – if you’re an elite gymnast, it’s more likely than not that you’ll get a chronic injury at some point, for example – and that it’s infantilising and unjustifiably authoritarian to ban adults from making lifestyle choices which don’t harm others. And if I was to do all that, then I’d have a point. But it isn’t quite as simple as that. Individual liberty is incredibly important, but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of supposing that the only way someone’s autonomy can be restricted is through the force of law. Banning an athlete by force of law from taking a drug certainly restricts that athlete’s freedom, but so too does pressuring that athlete into taking that same drug if you’re a manipulative coach who cares more about medals than about the lives of the athletes in your care. A restrictive law can enhance freedom if what it’s restricting is the ability of the powerful to control the powerless.

However, while it may not be as simple as ‘legalising all performance-enhancing drugs = more freedom’, a blanket ban on any performance-enhancing substance really doesn’t seem justified on the grounds of personal safety alone. A more nuanced response would be far more appropriate: lift the ban on all performance-enhancing drugs, but make sure all athletes are made fully aware of the side-effects of any drug they’re given so they can make an informed choice, and make them disclose full details of any and all drugs and supplements they’re on, so there’s no longer any incentive to lie. And maybe, in some cases, try and reduce the absurd amounts of prize money so that athletes and coaches alike aren’t so desperate to win that they’ll put lives on the line for it. It’s a difficult issue, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But just as with recreational drugs, a blanket ban is neither effective nor justified.

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Reader Comments

“the absurd amounts of prize money”

– They’ve never struck me as particularly absurd. The winner of this year’s Tour got €450K, I think, which is a lot, but isn’t much compared to what the top professional sportsmen in other sports can win (golf, tennis, etc.) or what top footballers get in their regular wage packets. And none of the other prizes are especially large: €8K for winning a stage, or €25K for being King of the Mountains (which is about the same as what you get for being a second-round loser at Wimbledon). And I think the norm, in any case, is still for prize money to be distributed among the team members (not sure about this), rather than simply being pocketed by the winner. The really rich cyclists are very small in number, and get their money from sponsorship deals, and that kind of thing.

On the more general issue, yes, the question of drugs in cycling is complicated, and I keep changing my mind about what I think about it.

One thing that isn’t mentioned in this piece, though, is that if you do have athletes taking drugs, then the athletes with the most money behind them will get the best drugs, or the latest drugs, which will often be the least detectable drugs, and as time passes these are going to be more likely to be the Americans (assuming US interest in cycling holds up post-Armstrong). (Sure, these athletes will have the best doctors and the most scientific training regimens, too, and those are also advantages.) But I’d be worried that a tolerant approach to the use of drugs in cycling is going to be yet another way of benefiting the already-haves against the rest of the competition.

Written By Chris Brooke on August 28th, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

Possibly. But couldn’t it work the other way too? Drugs might be a much cheaper way to enhance performance than fancy technological equipment, and if so that would even things up between richer and poorer competitors. Just a thought.

Written By Owen on August 28th, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

I am 100% for total legalization of all drugs from heroin to steroids to possession (if not sale) of all prescription drugs without prescription…but the question isn’t should performance enhancing drugs be legal or illegal, but should they be permitted in competition or not.

Once you recognize this, the whole libertarian demand for “adults from making lifestyle choices which don’t harm others” becomes irrelevant – because the issue is not should people be permitted to do whatever they like to their own bodies (they should) but should you be able to *force* other athletes and private associations that regulate athletic competitions, to permit them to compete on those terms. In the context of regulated athletic competition, it matters because it does hurt others, because demanding that these drugs be permitted impacts on their right to freely associate with who they choose (only competing against other non-drug users) and it forces the choice between losing a competitive edge and putting their body at risk of particular types of harms. Sure they accept other types of harms that are entailed by high level sporting competitions, but that doesn’t mean they have to accept any other type of harm which would be present if participating at a competitive level meant taking steroids – and thats a choice you functionally deny athletes if you demand that voluntary associations change their competition criteria to allow more drugs.

The problem with doping isn’t that its “morally wrong” or that its “cheating” in some abstract level that “training” isn’t – but that it changes the baseline parameters of competition in a sport to those that are not preferred by the majority of those participating in the sport.

To explain…

Regulated competitive environments – which sports by definition, are of necessity – have some forms of competition and advantage over others which are within the rules of the game – and some which are not.

This is totally arbitrary – the rules of games are arbitrary…

…however once established if some people play by one set of rules (they dope) and another play by a less advantageous set of rules (they don’t dope) then the people who don’t maximize their advantage by doping will lose out competitively. In these context then it is completely false to say that there is no harm caused, because the harm caused is a lack of competitive advantage – one that can only be addressed by adopting the same doping strategies. To force competitive sports associations to accept dopers would functionally exclude those who don’t want to use drugs from the top levels of competition.

The dilemma then is not between letting people make an informed choice and paternalistically protecting people from themselves – but between excluding one set of people (those calculate that they cannot win without performance enhancing drug) or excluding another set of people (those who refuse to use performance enhancing drugs). When it comes to whose rights get priority, when you talk about voluntary associations that decide who they wish to associate with, there is no right to use drugs in that context.

Written By S.G. on August 28th, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

“but the question isn’t should performance enhancing drugs be legal or illegal, but should they be permitted in competition or not.”

– Yes: that’s a good question to ask, and it’s highly relevant to cycling. Sometimes (as when Rasmussen got into trouble a couple of years ago) it’s a question of the cycling authorities enforcing their own rules and riders getting into trouble. But at other times (as during the Festina Affair during the 1998 Tour), it’s a question of the police intruding on the cycling in their attempt to enforce national drugs laws. (The whole thing on that occasion blew up when soigneur Willi Voet was arrested while crossing the border in his car stuffed full of drug paraphernalia.)

Written By Chris Brooke on August 28th, 2010 @ 10:25 pm

Of course what happens then is a rush to produce better drugs, and you end up with a junkie with two legs pounding to the line.

Where does it stop then, I played a number of sports, I once saw an idiot drink a bottle of cough mixture because he had read one of the drugs in it would make him run harder, the last time I saw him he was a mess, he took everything and anything , it may well have made him run faster but of course he left the ball behind.

Who will make the most money the bloke who runs the faster mile or the bloke who makes the drugs that makes him run the fastest mile.

I’m sorry whats gone wrong is of course drug takers are cheats they are not the best at the sport and thats why they cheat, bit like Gordon brown, shit politician who cheated to gain his win.

Written By treborc on August 29th, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

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