Sport is truly a manifestation of human movement that blends elements of our true selves (as human beings as well as individuals) with our working society at large. There is great utility in the way our man-made games can mimic our trials in life. Spectators and athletes alike have great opportunity to encounter their highest highs and lowest lows on any given Sunday. For this reason, those who realize the importance of sport remain ever vigilant of threats to the purity of the institution.
Perhaps this is why we were so comfortable in 2005, with congress summoning current and former MLB players suspected of using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Many of the lawmakers, through their questioning, reminded us of the symbolism of baseball as our national pastime and our need to preserve its sanctity. None of the questioning nor testimony bothered to address the deeper issues concerning the historical, medical and ethical premises for objecting to the use of PEDs in the first place.
A brief history of doping in sport
It is important to realize that though more sophisticated than ever, doping is no new issue in sport. An often cited argument against doping is that it is a novel addition to the game and therefore changes the entire dynamic of sport. This charge is refuted by evidence that the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans took performance enhancing substances. Dr. Paul Dimeo, professor of Sports Policy at the University of Sterling in the United Kingdom, points out that this argument may be reaching a bit too far back in time. Using examples of doping from the ancient era to justify the modern-day application of PEDs in sport is, “rubbish” on the grounds that the ancient “PEDs” were not drugs at all. The historical evidence shows sparse usage of roots, mushrooms and other foodstuffs that would have questionable effects on performance by today’s standards.
Dr. Dimeo identifies the true beginning of doping in sport to be 1876 (pg. 3) in his award-winning book, A History of Drug Use in Sport 1876-1976. He credits a 1876 publication in the British Medical Journal on the effects of coca leaves with stirring interest in the potential for performance enhancement through pharmacology. The thesis of the book is that our attitudes towards PEDs drastically shifted from hopefully optimistic to scornfully fearful within 100 years despite little hard evidence that the various substances and methods themselves are as dangerous and/or “evil” as popular culture has come to make them out to be.
If we are to restrict usage of PEDs we should establish a more solid rationale based in science and ethics. Our current approach to dealing with issues of doping in sport, though meant to protect athletes and sport, is largely reactionary and poorly justified.
Health Über Alles
Modern medicine is based on cautious evaluation of a cost/benefit equation. For this reason, your local neighborhood pharmacy is well stocked with schedule II drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines, morphine, and other highly illicit substances. There is a medical use for such dangerous substances that serve humanity when used appropriately. There are also medical applications for Anabolic steroids, EPO, beta-blockers and other drugs considered to be “performance enhancing”. These drugs are not as tightly regulated as the schedule II drugs; partly because they are not as dangerous. Of course there is opportunity for abuse with any substance, however, just as we manage the proper use of other more dangerous substances in everyday life, so too should we be able to regulate usage of PEDs in sport should we take a more progressive approach to the matter. If in fact, our means of regulation are found to be insufficient to ensure safe use, we should begin to re-think the proliferation of all other pharmaceuticals.
This logical inconsistency paired with highly exaggerated media coverage of anecdotal evidence of “death due to steroids” calls in to question our current bans and restrictions on PEDs. The media as well as our elected officials, are often found to be guilty of distorting reality for the sake of some greater good such as ending homelessness, smoking, hunger, domestic violence, etc. In the case of the media, not only does presenting a sensationalistic reality sell newspapers, but it also keeps kids from using steroids. Legislators and other so-called “experts” depend on a public perception of necessity and usefulness for their office/work. If there is little wrong with our society, we have little reason to empower them to pass laws and fund research to solve some problem.
To ban, or not to ban…
If we are to make a clear decision on the issue of doping, there needs to be justification beyond perceived dangers to the athlete and to the sport (Gardner, 1998). We must examine our paternalistic approach to ensure that self-reliance, personal achievement and autonomy are preserved in sport (Brown, 1984). Anytime liberty is restricted, there must be paired with it a strong and clear message of correct conduct on the basis of solid reasoning beyond any emotional or political aversion towards the behavior.
When legacies and reputations are at stake, doping bans must be carefully delineated through empirical as well as philosophical means. The restriction must then be accurately regulated and enforced so as to maintain the credibility and authority of the governing body.
Sport has always been about strict constitutive and regulative rules applied in an equitable fashion. Any new technology or training method must be subjected to the same scrutiny any new change to the rules. We should not carry with our judgement a visceral distaste to a particular rule change because we perceive it to be artificial or dangerous.
- Dimeo, P. (2007). A History of Drug Use in Sport 1876-1976: Beyond Good and Evil. New York: Routledge
- Brown, W.M. (1984). Paternalism, Drugs, and the Nature of Sports. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, XI, 14-22
- Gardner, R. (1989). On Performance-Enhancing Substances and the Unfair Advantage Argument. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, XVI, 59-73
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- Indian athletes top the list of dope offenders (ndtv.com)
- Lance Armstrong part of cycling’s ‘most successful doping program,’ USADA says (news.blogs.cnn.com)
- Is Lance Armstrong Still A Hero? (psychologytoday.com)
- Cycling teams call for audit of doping in sport (miamiherald.com)
- WADA accepts case against Armstrong (bigpondnews.com)
- Lance Armstrong and the Prisoners’ Dilemma of Doping in Professional Sports (wired.com)