Why do we ban performance-enhancing drugs for athletes? They are a four basic arguments that the supporters of a ban make: drugs are unhealthy, unfair, against the spirit of sport and no-one would watch drug-enhanced sport. Not one of them is convincing.
Elite sport is profoundly unhealthy. Elite athletes have a higher rate of infection than the general population and suffer repeated and devastating injuries. They require constant restorative medical interventions — doctors, physios and legal drugs — to compete. Their training regimes are inhuman in their intensity and pose real risks to the fragile human body. Many elite athletes leave their sport with permanent physical damage, not to mention psychological difficulties. Sport at this level is not healthy. If the International Olympic Committee (IOC) really cared about the health of athletes they would restrict training and enforce age limits. Allowing performance enhancing drugs would also result in proper development, testing and monitoring — which can only make their use safer and healthier for athletes.
Sport is not fair and we will never have a level playing field — so why limit something that makes it more unfair if banned, but fairer if legal? Only the richest, most connected (or those whose countries run the program) athletes can afford the complex drug cocktails and masking agents that are undetectable — giving them an unfair advantage. Allowing drugs for all athletes gives everyone a chance to improve their performance.
The amorphous “spirit of sport’ is the excuse that is aired when all others have failed. Sport at the elite level is no longer the amateur Hellenic ideal — if indeed it ever really was. The spirit of sport today is sponsorship dollars and nationalistic/ideological supremacy. It is about making money and beating the others. Do you really think any of the athletes who get bonus payments for winning medals from their country will donate it to a charity?
The last argument is that we, the punters, will lose ‘faith’ in sport and stop watching it if it is not “pure” and drug free. We know and don’t care about the scandals in sport, be it drugs, betting, throwing games or spectacular prima donna dives to get a penalty. Bad behaviour amongst sportspeople hasn’t impacted on their popularity either — we still watch and barrack just as hard. The most telling proof that we don’t really care about doping is the popularity of the two most drug tainted sporting events in the world — American Major League Baseball and the Tour de France. If we really cared about doping and that magical spirit of sport — surely no one would still be watching either.
Finally, a fundamental, irreconcilable problem with drug testing is that it is not reliable. The most recent case of systematic failure in drug testing is the case of EPO, a red blood cell booster. In a simple study in 2007, urine samples from men given EPO were sent to two WADA accredited labs for testing — they could not find the EPO nor agree on which samples might have been suspicious. These are the very labs that regularly test athletes. Marion Jones did not fail a drug test at the Sydney Olympics, despite later admitting to steroid use.
If the reasons for banning drugs don’t ring true and the tests don’t work, it would seem the entire exercise is pointless and futile — unless you consider that it is linked to the wider US war on drugs of the last few decades. Let’s get real about why we ban drugs and let sport become even more spectacular.
Dr James Connor is an academic who researches in the area of performance enhancement, sport and drugs.