Thursday, April 24, 2008

Doping and the Double Standard in Professional Sport

People are generally opposed to the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport, and this negative reaction has a number of arguments at its root. For example, critics claim that these drugs affect the purity of the sport, or that they could possibly have unforeseen and negative side-effects on athletes. By far the most prominent claim against performance enhancers is that they give an illegal and undeserved edge to those who use them. I take issue with this view, not necessarily because it is incorrect, but because it masks what I see as a blatant double standard in professional sport. The full version of this argument appears in the latest edition of Think; I would just like to present the main idea here.

I believe that questioning the use of performance enhancers is valuable, as it leads to discussions concerning the legitimacy of rewarding athletes who are using all types of synthetic aids to be better and, ultimately, to win. There are also important ethical questions which occur on the slippery slope between sport in the traditional, amateur, ‘Greek’, understanding of the term, and sport played by super-enhanced, ‘semi-human’, and extremely well-paid athletes. If technology allowed one to alter one’s genes, or to attach robotic arms, legs, etc to become better at a sport (or for that matter, better human beings), should we allow it?

Technological innovations are present in all sports, and at all levels. Companies like Nike, Adidas, Speedo, New Balance and Reebok are constantly striving to manufacture products which give athletes the edge over their opponents. For example, swimmers are now using full-body suits made out of material that minimizes friction with the water. Yes, would come the reply, but how much difference do these suits really make? Well, since it was introduced in February, 19 long-course world swimming records have been set, all but one of those by a swimmer wearing Speedo’s new LZR suit. Coincidence? I think not (see

Spiked athletic shoes are also standard issue today. These shoes have been proved to reduce times by full seconds by virtue of the better grip, and therefore propulsion, that they afford the athlete. Simply put, if you don’t wear them, you are going to lose.
The examples above of swimmers and track athletes are particularly good ones as they both involve sports that have been the traditional bastions of those blowing the anti-doping trumpet the loudest. But isn’t this remarkable, as it seems athletes can use any technology (clothes, shoes, heart-rate monitors etc) to help them beat their opponent, as long as this technology is put on the outside of the body. Yes, comes the immediate response, but when you take performance enhancers, you are not competing. It is some super-you; you are performing way beyond your natural capacity. People who use this line of argument are simply (and conveniently) omitting the impact of new technology. Don’t swimming suits and running spikes do exactly the same thing? Anyone arguing from an “all athletes need equal footing” perspective is going to have to go the whole way and have us all passing the baton barefoot and naked.

This then is the double standard present today in professional sport: we allow technological improvements in equipment, like the Speedo LZR above, to help our athletes, but declare using (some) technological improvements in synthetic stimulants for the same ends illegal. This is not an argument for all types of steroids to be made available whole-sale to the public; I feel that this could well endanger many lives. I suggest as well that the best argument against drugs of this nature will come from the harm they may do our athletes. Some athletes might also want to argue (quite fairly) that they don’t want to risk their lives to compete and win, and that others willingness to do this puts them at a disadvantage. The fact is that many safe performance enhancers are banned alongside those that are dangerous – why not just ban the dangerous ones? I am not offering a complete policy on performance enhancers; I am merely asking us to rethink our intuitive reactions towards performance enhancers.

1 comment:

Mike Austin said...

There is an important issue to consider here, and I hold the view that some of these performance enhancers that are external should also be banned, because I fear that in some cases we are changing particular sports too much by introducing these technologies. I can also imagine a critic of your argument claiming that there is a relevant difference between the two cases. Performance-enhancers such as steroids change the athlete, whereas the external equipment does not. I think more needs to be said here, but it is likely that this is one argument that could be given to split apart these two types of performance enhancers and undermine your double standard argument. How would you respond to this?