What Is (Not) Wrong With Doping – Part II

By Cansu Canca

[In Part I, I considered, and rejected, arguments that doping harms the athletes and treats human nature wrongly.]

Spirit of sport

Let us now turn to the third objection: the use of PEDs destroys the spirit of sport. Of course, “spirit of sport” is a rather nebulous concept. Here is what the WADA has to say about it:

The spirit of sport is the celebration of the human spirit, body and mind, and is characterized by the following values: Ethics, fair play and honesty; health; excellence in performance; character and education; fun and joy; teamwork; dedication and commitment; respect for rules and laws; respect for self and other participants; courage; community and solidarity. Doping is fundamentally contrary to the spirit of sport.[1]

Even if one agrees with this not-very-useful definition, it remains a mystery how the WADA deduces that doping (if allowed) is contrary to this spirit so defined.

I think it is better to put the WADA’s statement aside and see if there can be a better use of this concept of the “spirit of sport.” To demystify it, one may ask two questions: what is the purpose/aim of professional sports, and why do we cheer for an athlete. Once we clarify what we mean by the spirit of sport, we can inquire how doping corrupts this spirit.

One might say that the aim of professional sports is to test the limits of the human body. How fast can a human run, swim, or cycle? How high can she jump? And if we are interested to find out the answer only under “normal” or “natural” conditions of a human body, then doping may indeed cause a problem.

This argument is flawed. Athletes train like none of us do, eat like none of us do, and live like none of us do. And that is starting from an age of which most of us have only memories of playing and eating. So, it is false to assume that professional sports explore the “normal” limits of the human body. Especially when we consider certain exotic but legal training methods like sleeping in oxygen tents which help the body adjust itself to the heavy training… Moreover, PEDs are also often “natural” (i.e. the same substances that the body produces). And as far as they are chemicals, so are vitamins.

A different approach to understand the “spirit of sport” is to question our own interest as spectators to the athletic events. Why do we cheer?

The research in this area is quite limited. But it seems safe to assume that this enthusiasm is not just based on our curiosity about the limits of human physiology. Maybe we simply have a primitive tendency to get excited seeing humans compete because we identify with the participants. Would this be tainted by the use of PEDs? Would we find ourselves unable to identify with athletes if and because they openly started to use PEDs? This seems highly unlikely. If we can identify with them now as we watch them race while we drink our sodas and eat our chips, we probably still would when they take another substance that is foreign to us!

We have come a long way from the first Olympics of 1896, where the marathon was won by a simple water carrier, Spyridon Louis (who got wine, beer, milk, and even an Easter egg during his run). Even as early as 1904, the Olympics involved PEDs. The marathon winner Tom Hicks used, in today’s terms, performance enhancing substances when he received strychnine shots during the race. The spirit of sport as we know it has always involved new ways of pushing for a “superhuman” be it by poison shots or by oxygen tents.

Sci-fi slippery slope

What about the sci-fi slippery slope where the athletes replace limbs with their bionic versions? Would that be concerning? Would we then say “now the spirit of sport is lost”?

Maybe. If we believe that as mere mortals, we now find the athletes so “superhuman” that we cannot identify with them anymore, we may indeed stop cheering for them. The race may end for us when we see healthy legs being voluntarily swapped for mechanic ones. However, this can hardly be a worry. If we actually were to lose interest in the race, this would simply mean that the public response has drawn the limits of the game and such a practice cannot carry on.

On the other hand, if we still find the game exciting (maybe because we can still identify with the athletes or we now are more excited about the science behind the creation of “bionic athletes”), we may then get back to our worries about athletes’ rights or the treatment of the human nature.

Turning the question upside down

The weaknesses of these three objections do not mean that all types of doping should be allowed under all conditions. They only suggest that a ban on doping cannot be justified on these grounds.

Here is a completely different approach: Instead of asking what justifications we have for banning the use of PEDs in professional sports, we can question what stops us from banning them.

Unlike other enhancement questions, the doping issue arises within the artificially crafted world of sports where each sport is defined essentially by its arbitrarily set rules. A “game of soccer” or a “race of 100 meter butterfly” derive their meaning from these sets of rules which are simply put in place to define and distinguish the game. While other enhancement questions play on autonomy and harm/benefit, enhancement in professional sports can be viewed simply as a part of game rules which require no further justification. In other words, we cannot punish people for playing the ball with their hands in real life but we can in soccer without having to justify the necessity of such a rule. Similarly, while justifying a ban against men and women competing against each other would be highly problematic in daily life, it is an accepted rule in professional athletics.

Certainly adding a new rule would require some basic conditions. For example, the rule should be enforceable, it should be commonly accepted (or acceptable) by the authorities of this field, and it should not cause the public to lose interest in the game. The rule that bans the use of PEDs fails the first condition. On the other hand, a ban on “bionic athletes”, for example, may pass all these basic conditions.