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Is it time for a rethink of sport’s doping rules?

The integrity of sport is in the dock. Cheaters are being caught, many more obviously are not. Sport is being tarnished by the illicit actions of what we are told is a number twenty times the number of athletes currently caught. Doping in sport is taking up inches in the back pages that should surely be kept for those who are pushing boundaries of speed, skill and strength. The debate is usually polarized between doctors and sportspeople, perhaps not surprisingly. What I found surprising is which side of the argument these two sides normally, not always, fall on. In general, the medical professionals are in favor of legalizing the use of certain performance enhancers as long as professional medical supervision and regulation of the process is given. It is the athletes and the rule enforcers who are usually to be found on the other side arguing against this relaxing of the laws of sport.

Simply being a fan of sport or even being a participant, professional or otherwise, is not really enough; one must be informed. The first thing to consider is what, precisely, are we actually talking about. There are many overlapping issues and debates within the wider discussion. One centers around performance enhancers, one centers on wider doping and another around the specific use of steroids. Many people make the judgement that whatever the specific issue, if it falls within the sphere of performance enhancement for the reason of getting an advantage then it shouldn’t be allowed. This position may seem fair but after taking this position for so long, many people involved in the discussion are beginning to realize that this position may be having a negative effect on sport.

Firstly, let us get more specific. Performance enhancement has always been part of sport. Athletes have long looked beyond their own bodies for performance enhancement. In fact, no athlete has ever won anything without performance enhancement of one kind or another. Some athletes drink caffeine or energy drinks to train harder or to perform better ‘on the day’. People participating in sports have long worn shoes, sunglasses etc. Industries have grown around trying to create the best swimsuit or football boots to give the wearer some kind of competitive advantage over other competitors. Some athletes train at altitude to increase the efficacy of their body’s ability to absorb oxygen. Incidentally, this is precisely what blood doping does. Athletes regularly load up on carbohydrates before taking part in order to reach their potential. Tiger Woods famously had eye surgery to give him better than 20:20 vision in order to gain an advantage over his fellow golfers. So performance enhancement has long been a part of sport. This is not merely an academic point; one has to be able to understand this to continue the discussion.

Steroids are different in that they only give you an advantage if you train at high intensity. An athlete does not simply take a course of steroids and get better than her competitors. Steroids allow for better recovery so someone training can train for longer. The anabolic effects of certain steroids then allow for greater muscle development and, perhaps, better results in the arena. Steroids with androgenic properties have side effects that include acne and temporary loss of sperm count. Other, more adverse side effects are a result of steroid abuse and include high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and mood swings. It is generally accepted that use of steroids by adolescents and children is harmful and can lead to stunted growth. The dangers of addiction are obviously more pronounced in younger, more impressionable people due to issues surrounding self-esteem issues and the hormonally charged desire to attract the opposite sex. Steroid use may not be detected if a user stops using the substance a month before testing. Crucially, the advantage given by the use of anabolic steroids i.e. greater muscle mass will still be present.

So why don’t we allow athletes to use steroids or other performance enhancing drugs/substances? Well obviously the most legitimate concern is for the safety of the participants. Methods as well as the substances themselves are important. In the 1960’s deaths from the use of these substances occurred. It is widely accepted that knowledge is much better now and nobody is taking the substances orally like was the case back then. Other deaths can be put down to abuse or unsupervised, clandestine use. It is clear that use of these substances, especially under the guidance of qualified doctors, is not as dangerous as participating in professional sport anyway.

One could argue that use of steroids to aid recovery from injury may actually make participating in sport safer and will also lead to athletes being able to return to participation quicker and in better shape than they otherwise would be without this now illegal recovery method. Members of the public would be allowed to recover in this safe way so why not athletes? We allow them painkillers and other recovery aides that provide them with an advantage over those who do not use them, so why not steroids? The fact is athletes are already pushed to do things that their bodies were not made for. Performance enhancers have made this the case. We are already chemically filled, we already use unnatural ways of gaining an advantage but we have leveled the field by allowing, for example, everyone to wear shoes or carbon fiber tennis rackets.

The issue is that doping would give that performer an unfair advantage over others who do not partake. This would not be the case if the playing field were leveled to give the cheaters a smaller advantage. The issue now is that those that would cheat have an advantage within the existing rules and these rules don’t seem to be based on any particular evidence other than a perhaps outdated mentality on drugs in general. It really makes no sense if we are talking about substances that are perfectly safe and merely allow our athletes to perform to their potential, as we would want. If the argument is that the substances allow them to go beyond what their bodies would normally be capable of there are a number of points to consider. Firstly, why do we allow them to use caffeine, Viagra or Lucozade? Secondly, they are already competing beyond what the human body can do without intense training- that is the very nature of professional sport. Thirdly, other people in society are allowed these substances for recovery or performance enhancing. If a professor who uses Caffeine, Ritolin or some other stimulant to aide in her studies achieves something, should we discredit this on the basis that she had ‘extra help’?

Prohibition is always a very strange way to stop the use of something because it creates black markets and with them extra incentives for those that would wish to circumvent the rules. Clandestine activities create extra risks, in this case from questionable, short-term medical research and administration of drugs. For a long time sport hasn’t just been about the human body and it’s natural (whatever that means exactly) prowess. Sport involves ingenuity, technology and knowledge as much as any other factors and this is good because it has allowed us to get closer to our potential as human beings competing with one another.

There are important things to consider which the debate sometimes doesn’t get to because of some participants unwillingness to even consider the arguments. For example, if the rules were relaxed, perhaps in line with the guidelines that already exist for ordinary members of the public, would this be the equivalent of making the use of these methods and substances mandatory? Are we in danger of allowing athletes the right to choose de jure but de facto  making the use of these substances a mere requirement of competing in sport? This is an unintended consequence that would obviously need considering but I can see no problem as long as long term research findings are used to inform the rules in place. It would be like using an oxygen tent or wearing a new, sleeker swimsuit; these changes occur seasonally anyway.

Another argument is that if the rules were relaxed would the cheaters stop where they are? The obvious answer is no. Cheaters would continue to try new technologies and illegal substances but the gap would be smaller. The cheaters will carry on doing whatever they can to win and the testers will still catch a tiny minority of them as techniques in privately funded medical centers dash far ahead of the World Anti-Doping Agency still left languishing in the starting blocks of largely publicly funded ways and means. You will never stop these people; they have funds available to them as individuals and have a lot of pressure on them to keep their positions at the peak of their particular discipline or indeed to gain parity with those competitors that are there already. It might be progressive to allocate WADA funds to test for the most unsafe and badly researched substances while leaving the low level, safe use to a legal market where everyone would have equal and transparent access.

There is without a doubt a more nuanced approach to this problem other than the one currently adopted or indeed any approach I could hope to find. Perhaps a solution is to allow each world federation of a particular sport to come up with their own set of rules regarding which substances can be used so, for example, the World Football Association (FIFA) would have different rules to the World Boxing Association. What is important is that the debate moves on because it is quite clear that the integrity of sport is being tested by the demands that we place on the athletes involved. The people involved in this discussion must be prepared to accept that there are many shades of grey available to the legislators of our competitive games.

Michael Thomas



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