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.