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Lift The Ban On Athlete Doping


What do we spectators cheer and admire in competitive sports? Is it purely achievement? How about the motto “faster, higher, stronger,” coined by a French Dominican priest, Henri Didon, and borrowed by the aristocratic French founder of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, who introduced it to the public during the 1924 games? This three-word motif—citius, altius, forties—begs the question: by what means?

Coubertin had a fondness for priests and preachers. He also co-opted this now unbearably cloying phrase: “The most important thing is not to win, but to take part.” He took that from a sermon the bishop of Pennsylvania delivered during the 1908 Olympics in London. It’s all about fair play—how you play, not whether you win.

Like Vince Lombardi, however, don’t most of us disagree with the second statement? Often we say we do, unless we’re brushing the tears off our kids after a defeat in Little League or soccer. Do we sit beaming, Zen-like on the sidelines as they strike out, miss the pop fly, flub the penalty kick, and look the wrong way at just the wrong time?

Winning Is Still Important Even If We Pretend It’s Not

You’d have to muzzle most parents like rabid animals if you wished for a benevolent silence from the sides. Of course we want them to win! We get frustrated, hopefully in a way that does not provoke shameful purse-swinging and chest-poking incidents involving other parents behind the bleachers, when our kids don’t play well. And that’s just in amateur Little League play.

What Coubertin’s second aphorism means to most of us is simply: You don’t quit. You stay in the game, keep trying, and next game maybe you can be just a little better. Maybe more than just a little.

Yes, we decry those shameful purse-swinging and chest-poking incidents. That’s not what sports is about! Or at least, that’s not what the amateur sports our darling offspring play on week nights and weekends is about. We have to domesticate our vicarious competitive urges when we sit as spectators outside the delineated arena. The education and sports establishments steadily drum into us the philosophy of pure, friendly, fun, and natural competition.

But what does that supposedly sacred ideal, the natural athlete, mean in 2016? How has it changed since the International Association of Athletics Federations in 1928 published what apparently was the first anti-doping rules, which were a few paragraphs contained in a slender pamphlet? If all the condemnation and anger at Rio and elsewhere is essentially that doping is cheating, aren’t we being hypocritical about the rules? Or shouldn’t we at least agree on what the rules are, or should be?

We Only Care about Doping When It’s the Other Guy

If, for example, there is indeed fairly widespread doping in the Tour de France and cycling in general, has this resulted in empty city avenues and rural roads devoid of rabid spectators as grim pelotons whirr by in a guilt-shrouded silence? No vast media organizations beaming live around the planet? Do we turn our backs on professional sports because an elite athlete has been accused of taking performance-enhancing substances? Do we fill the churches to hear today’s Didon sermonize on the evils of beta blockers?

No? You don’t say. The direction of our pointed fingers depends on which team (or, in the case of the Olympics, which nation) the offending perpetrator represents. Doesn’t it? The rebirth of the modern Olympics came well into the age of the nation-state. The flag as much as the individual is the repository of our jingoistic passions in today’s Olympics.

The beer-belly-exposed to-the-winter-wind screaming partisanship is also what makes elite, professional sports so agonizingly delicious for us, the spectators (whether we bare our chests in Wisconsin or not). It’s the same partisanship that adores our team’s superhero. This irresistible force has been smashing against the somewhat-movable object of the fair-play bureaucracy for decades now. It’s a low-grade, hypocritical civil war that regularly bursts into heated skirmishes, like the literally in-your-face splashes in the pool in Rio.

It is time for some clarity in our thinking about performance-enhancing drugs and what sort of regulatory framework would work best in today’s world of elite sport competitions. A growing body of academic work suggests so.

The Compliance Bureaucracy’s Lame Rules

In a paper on the ethics of performance-enhancing drugs, Bennett Foddy and Julian Savulescu take a scalpel to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA’s) code on banned substances. The philosophy behind its list is a trinity composed of the following questions about any substance athletes consume:

  • Does it potentially enhance performance?
  • Does it present immediate or potential risks to the athlete’s health and safety?
  • Is its use contrary to the “spirit of sport”?

From these three questions, WADA produces its “List of Prohibited Substances & Methods.” If you read through the list, you will see it is not definitive. What is on the list is banned, but other substances may be banned as well, as several of the list’s sub-categories clearly indicate. In other words, it is an including-but-not-limited-to list. That’s understandable in a race between methods and drugs that mask their presence, and the spot checks WADA bureaucrats carry out to try and ensure compliance.

Here’s the problem. Some performance-enhancing substances are not banned, like caffeine and creatine. Some harmful substances like tobacco and nicotine are not banned, either. In other words, does WADA really care about the first two criteria? As Foddy and Savulescu state: “In fact, the WADA code is functionally identical to a single-criterion code which defines doping as ‘any substance or method which violates the spirit of sport.’”

After whittling down WADA’s feel-good list of what actually constitutes the spirit of sport, we are left with cheating. As they say, in the end, the WADA code essentially maintains that “doping is cheating by using drugs.”

The new designer drugs like growth hormones or beta blockers are hard to detect and harmful to athletes. Although it’s hard to say when or if gene-doping is already being used, although it may already be, it’s supposedly similar in its stealth-like effects and potential harmfulness to athletes. As for Aaron Cross and his chems in “The Bourne Legacy,” it is already a dangerous and seductive part of our worldview.

So we have a lengthy but fuzzy list of banned substances that is constantly being updated. We have determined elite athletes who are willing to ingest harmful substances to gain a slight competitive edge. We have large, sometimes enormous, audiences lustfully looking for a record, a win, a bruising battle. They want a reason to shout for flag and country or team and give a gleeful thumb’s down for the poor, cheatin’, losin’ scum over in lane six.

We also have compliance experts and ambiguous regulators overseeing their own nation’s athletes in what is clearly a conflict of interest, all in the name of sporting spirit. It’s an institution as trustworthy as figure-skating judges. Well, maybe not quite that bad.

Or maybe it really is quite that bad. We don’t know who is cheating until we do. And we never really know everybody who is or was complicit in allowing the cheating. What should WADA do to clean up this mess?

Forget the Chems

Foddy and Savulescu suggest a radical change: End the focus on banned performance-enhancing substances and focus on the athletes’ health and well-being. If, for example, an athlete’s blood viscosity is too high, no matter what the cause, that athlete can’t compete. Then they will know that a clear and measurable set of health indicators will be WADA’s goal, not an endless chase after masked drugs from an ever-changing list.

Imagine that all athletes in any given sports event are genetically identical and have used identical training facilities. Not quite as exciting, huh?

Yes, that means lots of performance-enhancing substances will no longer be banned. It also means that in a world of open and safer (but not necessarily entirely safe) performance-boosting drug use, some athletes’ bodies will metabolize the drugs better than others. Awwww, not fair!

So? Cam Newton’s ball-throwing ability is based on the particulars of his body and mind, and the training invested in him. His ability is also the result of a long series of choices he’s made as free-willed human who was born with way more ability than most of us can dream of. He also did more with his God-given gifts than most do, because of the choices he made. It’s not fair he was born with so much talent, or that he made the most of it.

Here’s a little thought experiment: imagine that all athletes in any given sports event are genetically identical and have used identical training facilities. Not quite as exciting, huh? So we’re different, and that’s good. Those inequalities in the availability of choices have always been present in sport. Why do Australian swimmers do better than swimmers from, say, Venezuela? Or, to be fair to the South Americans, why do athletes from Cuba generally do much better compared to those from Venezuela?

It’s trite to talk about sports infrastructure nowadays, because it is such an overwhelming and unavoidable presence in any elite athlete’s career, especially the formative years. Any nation’s or team’s supporting infrastructure is a function of the extent of social, human, and financial capital their country and team has managed to build up. This all surrounds and enhances any athlete’s natural potential (whatever the term “natural” means in 2016).

As Paul Dimeo, a sports lecturer at the University of Stirling, writes: “The idea of a natural athlete is inconceivable, so a new definition of ‘clean’ might be developed that emphasizes health rather than trying to limit performance enhancement.”

Elite athletes have proven themselves willing to take harmful risks over and over again, all to gain an edge. Many do so in sports that are already harmful without the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Stripping down the WADA compliance bureaucracy and its rules would allow for a clear and measurable set of health-centered goals instead that allow for athletes’ ambitions and willingness to take risks. It would also place reasonable, specific limits on those risks, and perhaps allow for some of the truth about who’s doing what to win to come out.

Furious that Olympic and world records will have to be re-calibrated? I’m guessing you’ll get over it—especially when more than a few previous record-holders admit they were cheating all along.