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The Reality of Doping in Sports

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The NBA lockout gave me a chance to write about non-NBA topics that I feel strongly about. The other day I wrote the overview for my series on doping; today’s post is the second in the series and covers the common arguments in favour of a ban on PEDs. Next time will cover arguments against the ban.

Natural Science

The argument that is most easily dismissed is the idea that PEDs should be banned because they are “unnatural”. Such an argument should not be taken seriously. Today’s athletes use a lot of equipment that is highly “unnatural”: extremely light shoes, advanced speed skates, lighter rackets with larger sweet spots, etc. On top of that, athletes also undergo several “unnatural” medical procedures, from eye surgeries that improve vision to knee surgeries that repair torn ligaments. Then there are the advances in nutrition (vitamins and diet), advances in medicine (antibiotics and vaccines), advances in transportation (planes, trains, and cars), and advances in training (exercise science, high-altitude training). As a matter of fact – it’s hard to imagine today – training of any kind was frowned upon in the early days of the modern Olympics. To train for competition was considered “ungentlemanly” — because remember, the early Olympics were only open to rich white males (this aversion to training was also tied to quaint notions of amateurism, which is another story altogether).

It is not philosophically consistent to ban some of these “unnatural” elements while permitting others. PEDs (or technologically advanced swimsuits, for that matter) should not be banned simply because they are recent developments that weren’t available to previous generations of competitors.

Bumpy terrain

The ‘equal playing field’ argument is a little more sophisticated than the ‘unnatural’ argument, but just as unconvincing. Athletes come from a variety of training environments; some athletes have the luck of growing up in a wealthy country, while others grow up in much poorer countries. Some athletes have access to the best coaches in the world, while others don’t get any coaching. Some athletes have access to world-class training facilities, while others don’t have access to any training facilities. As one can see, even before we get to the PED issue, there is no such thing as an “equal playing field”. If the ban on PEDs exists to create an equal playing field, such a mission is doomed from the start, as the playing field is unequal with or without PEDs.

But the ban on PEDs is even worse than useless in this regard. In fact, a ban exacerbates the ‘unequalness’ of the playing field. This is because – as evidenced by the 1988 Men’s 100m Final – athletes still use PEDs during a ban. With a ban in place, those who use PEDs have an advantage over those who don’t, just as athletes with access to world-class training facilities have an advantage over those who don’t. Under a ban, the only way to remove the advantage gained from using PEDs is to use tests that are 100% effective, which would ensure that no athlete gains a PED advantage. But drug testing will never reach 100% effectiveness. By its very nature, drug testing is always one step behind dopers; tests to detect PEDs are developed in response to the creation of new PEDs and/or new PED-masking drugs. And the closer testing gets to 100% effective (without hitting 100%), the greater the advantage conferred to the dopers who have managed to avoid detection. Fewer undetected dopers means more “clean” athletes, which means that those athletes who remain undetected have an advantage over a larger number of competitors.

% of Doping Athletes% of Clean AthletesStrength of Doping Advantage1000None991Very Weak8020Weak5050Moderate2080Strong199Very Strong0100None

In this way, drug testing – which was supposed to remove the advantage of dopers – has actually strengthened the advantage. The law of unintended consequences strikes again!

Prohibition proclamation

The final common argument in favour of a ban on PEDs is the ‘health’ argument. This argument makes the claim that athletes are healthier under a PED ban than they are without one, a claim that is false for two reasons:

  • assuming that PEDs have harmful effects, prohibitions on dangerous substances inevitably lead to worse health outcomes
  • we don’t even know for sure that PEDs have harmful effects when administered properly

When alcohol was banned in the 1930s, alcohol production and consumption did not magically come to an end; all that happened was that it moved into the black market, which led to a huge increase in crime. Likewise, does prohibiting abortion stop abortions from happening? No. Abortions still happen when they are banned; the only significant difference is that they become more dangerous to obtain. How about the War on Drugs?Every indication shows that the prohibition of illicit drugs has actually made things worse. For the umpteenth time: prohibition does not work! Prohibition simply causes the dangerous behaviour to move into the black market, which is far less safe than regulation. Removing the PED ban would mean that athletes could have their substances and procedures administered and supervised by doctors and other health professionals. Out in the open, PEDs would also be manufactured safely, meaning that they wouldn’t be laced with undesirable chemicals, as they are currently.

And this brings us to the second strike against the health argument: we don’t actually know for sure that PEDs are dangerous. Why not? Because they are banned, many haven’t been properly tested. Most of our knowledge about PEDs comes from the 1970s or earlier, back when the USSR started its drug testing programs. At the time, a lot of the dosages were huge, and anything can be harmful in large doses, even water and various vitamins. The jury is still out on whether smaller doses of many PEDs are actually harmful; it would be nice to have some more research done on the subject before we decide that they are dangerous.

As a matter of fact, many substances that are used as PEDs — such as Human Growth Hormone (HGH) and testosterone — occur naturally in our bodies and can be prescribed by doctors. There is nothing inherently wrong with them; as with water and vitamins, the only problem is too much of them. Additionally, some athletes who get caught using banned substances are simply guilty of taking over-the-counter medicines. Consider the case of Scottish skier Alain Baxter, who, after winning a bronze medal, was disqualified for testing positive for levomethamphetamine. Levomethamphetamine is an inactive isomer of methamphetamine, and Baxter apparently ingested it using a Vicks inhaler. To make things worse, levomethamphetine is not found in the UK version of the inhaler that Baxter was familiar with, but it is found in the US version, which Baxter used, thinking it was safe.

So not only are we unsure of the danger posed by many PEDs, we also allow innocuous substances to make it onto banned substances lists. Our prohibition on PEDs actually leads to worse health outcomes and skews the playing field even further than it already is. We ban some “unnatural” elements, but allow others. All of these things point to one conclusion: the evidence in support of the ban on PEDs is very thin, if not non-existent.

- Devin


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