Why don’t we just… allow athletes to dope?

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Of the 30 riders climbing the awards podium at the Tour de France over the 10 years up until 2007, 22 have admitted or been credibly linked to doping. Some people suggest that since athletes are going to dope anyway why not just let them? Fans like to see record-breaking performances and, besides, shouldn’t adult athletes (set aside for a moment children and adolescents) be free to decide what risks they’re willing to take with their bodies?

Or should they? Some people believe  athletes should be able to use any performance enhancing drugs as long as they’re not dangerous to their health. But if you’re going to allow that, you’ll need ways to discourage athletes from using the dangerous ones and to catch those who violate the ban; the fuss and bother of drug testing may just have to persist. Two things would change: which drugs get on the banned list; and the reasons we give for putting them there. For critics in this camp, protecting athletes’ health is the only acceptable justification.

There is another camp for anti-doping sceptics who emphasise individual liberty: forget about efforts to constrain athletes’ freedom to use technologies to improve their performance. Let them use whatever they choose. This will result in astonishing performances. The collateral damage, though, to both public health and the meaning of sport, would likely be severe.

Why worry about the health of the public? The drugs used by elite athletes with access to expert medical supervision will also become popular among aspiring athletes, including adolescents and perhaps even children. It will be the lucky 15-year-old hoping for a career in professional football who can afford a doctor expert in managing the use of anabolic steroids, EPO or stimulants. Now, multiply this scenario by the millions of youth and adults participating in sport who will watch the prospect of success without doping recede rapidly. Not everyone will resort to doping but, if we remove both legal controls and the stigma attached to it, many will. The likely result is a public health crisis, with particularly dire consequences for young people.

Sport is a peculiar human activity. At the elite level, the difference between winners and those at the back of the pack are tiny: hundredths of a second in the 100 metre sprint; fractions of an inch in the pole vault or discus. If a one or two percent difference separates the top performer from the next few, then a drug that boosts performance by, say, 5 percent, as EPO is said to do in bike racing, would enable a less talented and dedicated competitor to prevail.

When a drug exists that can significantly enhance performance and you believe that your competitors are using it, you have three unhappy options. You can hold fast to your principles knowing you may lose to an inferior competitor without your scruples; you can stop competing at this level; or you can dope like the others. The point of anti-doping is to create a fourth option: to compete clean with reasonable confidence that your fellow athletes are doing the same.

Sport is peculiar in another way. Sports are selective about which technologies they embrace and sometimes reject ones that unquestionably improve performance. Swimming, for example, has banned full-body, super-slippery swimsuits. Golf prohibits balls engineered to fly straight even when hit badly, along with clubs that make it easier to hit a good shot out of tall grass. And cycling has no tolerance for electric motors hidden in bikes. Each sport worth the name understands implicitly what it values: what particular natural talents, and what means for perfecting those talents, ought to determine performance. When a new “improved” technology is compatible with what the sport values, such as flexible synthetic poles for the pole vault, a sport can embrace it. When it undermines the connections between talent, dedication and performance – as doping does – sport should stay true to its values and meanings.

Thomas H Murray, Good Sport: Why Our Games Matter – And How Doping Undermines Them is published by Oxford University Press (£22.33)

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