Drugs in sport: Let athletes take drugs, but I don't want them in my club - or at my Olympics'
One of our regular contributors puts the opposing view
This article makes a carefully argued case for the abolition of the doping regulations, with the single important exception of ensuring that anything that is – or may be – harmful to the athlete’s health should remain outlawed. Athletes should be free to take any performance enhancing substances they wish.
Professor Savulescu and his colleagues have successfully marshalled a large body of evidence to support their case that the current regulations are illogical and should be abandoned. Most readers would agree that the use of drugs in sport is a logical extension of other strategies to improve performance: training, equipment, diet and coaching are all part of the preparation strategy of the athlete. Why not drugs too?
This, of course, raises a large problem. Many of the drugs that athletes use, and certainly most of the ones that are effective in improving performance, come with a significant risk. By the time the health effects – the cancers, liver damage, coronary abnormalities etc – are detectable, they are irreversible, so health screening of athletes before competition is not the answer. Often, there is no advance warning, as with the amphetamines that killed British cyclist Tommy Simpson.
No one really knows how many athletes die each year as a consequence of the abuse of performance enhancing drugs, but there is ample evidence that such cases are not unusual. If we are going to say that the use of drugs that pose a health risk is to be prohibited, then we need the whole paraphernalia of doping lists to identify and exclude those drugs, in- and out-of-competition testing to detect their use, athlete education programmes and everything else that goes with it.
Those who want open use of drugs should be allowed to use them if they want – or at least within the laws of the land, because we should not forget that it is a criminal offence to supply or to possess without proper authority many of the performance enhancing drugs used in sport.
I have no difficulty with this. But I don’t want these athletes at my club, and I don’t want them in my Olympic Games. The point about competing in sport is that many of the rules are arbitrary: examples might include the offside rule in football, the prohibition on low punches in boxing, or the penalty rules for fouling in basketball. The aim is to compete within the rules and that is the ethos of sport.
Of course, if we say that there is nothing more at stake than winning at all costs, then the nature of sport is changed. So ‘diving’ and intimidation of the referee are seen as a normal part of the modern professional game of football. Cheating in rugby – the illegal hand in the scrum – is acceptable, and even applauded by some, if it can be done without the referee seeing it.
The IOC’s Lausanne Declaration on Doping in Sport (4 February, 1999) says that ‘...doping is defined as the use of an artifice, whether substance or method, potentially dangerous to athletes’ health and/or capable of enhancing their performance’. Of course, the rules are not perfect, but they are the rules. Some performance enhancing substances are not prohibited (caffeine and creatine, for example). Athletes are free to use these if they wish. Anabolic androgenic steroids are banned: athletes caught using these will be penalised. In some cases, the distinction is no more arbitrary than the offside rule.
There are various other objections that might be raised to some parts of Savulescu’s argument. We are told, for example, that ‘by allowing everyone to take performance enhancing drugs, we are levelling the playing field’.
The strength of this argument is, of course, weakened by the fact that the preceding paragraph draws attention to the advantage the seven-foot basketball player enjoys, and to the benefits to performance of Ian Thorpe’s extra-large feet. It is not obvious that there are drugs available, or ever will be, that would allow someone like me to enjoy those advantages. Even if I could grow my feet, I am still scared of water and can’t swim. The reality is that the playing field never will be level.
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