What Is (Not) Wrong With Doping – Part I

By Cansu Canca

Sports news has a permanent section now: the doping news. Less than a month ago, Gay and Powell (“the second and the fourth fastest men of all time”) also tested positive for banned substances. What used to be a scandalous piece of news (maybe with its final anti-hero being Lance Armstrong) became more of a curiosity item. The problem of doping became so wide-spread (tainting even curling!) that it is casting doubt on every medal we have ever seen in sports history. The war against doping seems to be a failure and even those who previously fought against doping now start to re-consider their views.[1]

Under the current rules, the ethical problem with doping is obvious: fairness. Those who cheat the system have an unfair advantage. However, the cheating argument is valid only when doping is prohibited. If the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) were allowed, there would be no cheating since every sportsperson would be equally entitled to use them.[2]

Then, why not just allow doping?

Three objections are common:
1. It is dangerous/harmful for the athletes.
2. It treats human nature wrongly.
3. It violates the spirit of sports.

None of these objections are strong.

Harm to the athletes

Both the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) emphasize “rights of athletes” to compete doping-free. The purpose is to allow athletes to be healthy.

One problem with this argument is that it pretends that (only) the drugs introduce danger and harm to otherwise safe professional sports. The truth is that training for and competing in professional sports by their very nature already involve high risk of severe injury. In addition, there are also many practices in professional sports that are necessary for today’s competition but that are not a logical necessity for sports itself. For example, athletes would be better-off if the “game” did not involve intensive training starting from a very young age. Or if there were limits on the intensity or duration of training. They would also be subjected to less harm if, for example, gymnastics did not involve (or even require!) high risk moves, football had rules that prevented hard collisions, or soccer took a tougher line on tackles. All of these rules might be difficult to enforce and might lower the level of the game. Yet, the argument about athletes’ rights and protection is equally applicable to all such cases. Any objection on the grounds that doping makes sports dangerous must take into account the existing dangers of professional sports and the fact that we don’t act against these.

Of course, by necessity we must start somewhere to protect athletes’ health. And the available data do suggest that athletes are much more willing to dope themselves to death over a victory than the average population. A survey suggests that half of all elite athletes would take a drug that would guarantee success but also subsequent death after five years. In contrast, less than one percent of the average population would be willing to take this crazy deal. However, since the prohibition on the use of PEDs has been failing gloriously, in reality, the question of doping related danger does not arise in comparison to a doping-free environment. Instead, the question is which strategy protects the athletes better: prohibition (i.e. illegal use of drugs) or regulation (i.e. safety controls).

This is an empirical question, and its answer depends on regulatory frameworks that the sports authorities may propose. One proposal is a system that checks athlete’s health instead of trying to catch banned substances. According to this view, such an approach will also make the focus shift from creating undetectable drugs to safe drugs. It is not obvious if such a proposal would work. But it is obvious that the efforts to protect athletes should not be concentrated on anti-doping. Now that only two out of the ten fastest men in 100 meters remain “clean” (so far), it is hard to believe that the best method to protect athletes is the present “zero tolerance” strategy against doping.

Treatment of human nature

I will not dwell on this objection since this question has been discussed extensively in the literature also in relation to other enhancement questions (such as genetic and moral enhancement). Is it morally permissible or maybe even required to treat the human body as something that can be shaped, changed, and enhanced starting in vitro by new technologies? This line of argument leads us to the well-known bodily integrity and human dignity arguments. I think the weaknesses of such arguments are well documented. It is hard to move further than “squeamishness” in this line of reasoning. For the purposes of this post, I will put these questions aside.[3]

This leaves us with the third objection: do PEDs violate the spirit of sports? Unlike the first two, this third objection is truly special to sports.

            Read Part II.


[1] Here is Doug Logan’s (the former CEO of USA Track and Field) account for his drastic change in attitude: http://speedendurance.com/2013/06/13/shin-splints-redux-may-the-best-meds-win/

[2] The fairness argument can also be posed in terms of inequality in access to PEDs. But this argument fails to distinguish drugs from training. Just like some athletes may not have access to the best PEDs, they also may not have access to the best trainers or training equipment.

[3] For some good discussions of the topic, see: Nick Bostrom, “In Defense of Posthuman Dignity,” Bioethics 2005, 19 (3): 202-214; Allen Buchanan, “Human Nature and Enhancement,” Bioethics 2009, 23 (3): 141-150; Frances Kamm, “Is There a Problem with Enhancement,” The American Journal of Bioethics 2005, 5 (3): 5-14.