To dope or not to dope?

EDGAR explores the sticky subject of whether our perception of what cheating is needs to change with the times.

Josh Sims July 25, 2016

The outrage surrounding the revelation that, almost 30 years ago, sprinter Ben Johnson had used performance-enhancing drugs can seem positively quaint today, such is the routine nature with which sport is tainted by doping.

Cyclist Lance Armstrong was stripped of his titles and did the chat show tour of shame. More recently, and on a grander scale, Russia was accused of state-sponsored doping of its athletes at the 2012 London Olympics.

Operation Puerto and its 211 blood bags are rearing their ugly head in Spain too. Latterly in the UK a doctor, Mark Bonar, caused a stir by saying he has prescribed banned substances to 150 athletes, including Premier League footballers. Every sport, it seems, has dubious chemicals running through its veins.

“It’s been the situation for decades – the greatest athlete may have perhaps a one per cent advantage over their nearest rival, but if using a banned substance gives them a five per cent advantage, there may not seem like any choice but to do so,” says Dr. Tom Murray, former director for the Center of Biomedical Ethics at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, chair of the ethical issues review panel for the World Anti-Doping Agency and author of the forthcoming book Fair Ball. “Sport’s governing bodies have never taken the issue seriously, it’s been seen as more of a PR problem. We’ve long known the sad and sordid details of doping but not engaged with them. But increased investigative reporting and long-time crusaders means we can’t avert our eyes any more.”

But to what exactly? To the cheating, if it can be called that? To not abiding by the letter of the law? To the risk to the health of people whose extreme behaviours are inherently risky? To the bad examples being set for our children? To our discomfort with the idea of somehow not altogether human people? To our enjoyment as spectators being spoiled?

On the surface, it may all seem like a legalistic matter - athletes not abiding by the rules, however arbitrary these may be. When the improved performance of javelin throwers threatened to start killing spectators, stadia were not made bigger. Rather, the javelins were changed, arguably to the disadvantage of the discipline’s then leading athletes. Rules, similarly, proscribe technological advances all the time – golf balls that fly too far and too straight, for example. When Maria Sharapova, the poster girl of women’s tennis, was suspended for her decade-long use of a banned substance earlier this year, she lost not just millions in sponsorship deals, but maybe also her reputation. Yet the substance in question, meldonium, had, until the start of 2016, not been on the naughty list at all.

But this divisive issue cuts much deeper – otherwise it would be an easy solution to simply make doping within the rules. Indeed, the hotly-debated subject is more a philosophical one than it may at first seem, reframing our perceptions of sport, and of what sport is for, even what it is to be human and a member of society today.

“It’s really an issue about values and meaning,” adds Murray. “Sport can be a site of corruption and venality, granted. And every sport has to make its own decisions about what matters to it, about how it should best function. But why do any of us give a damn about sport? Because we see in it something of value. And that’s sport at any level – the combination of talent, dedication and courage is undermined by doping.”

Only to those willing to indulge the grey areas, others argue. Why, rationally, should any distinction be made between steroids and any other form of technological enhancement widely used by elite athletes, from micro-managed vitamin intake to carb loading, from the use of hyperbaric chambers or the Stanford-developed ‘glove’ that rapidly cools the body to improve performance, all of which also bring about a bio-chemical transformation in the body? Why are these generally accepted by governing bodies and spectators alike, whereas drugs are not? And in what way would the prohibition of these technologies, doping included, genuinely result in a level playing field? It says much that half of British athletes went to fee-paying schools, which is to say they had access to a playing field in the first place, where many fledging athletes did not.

Others might suggest a certain sentimentality in the way sport is presently viewed. Classicists would point out that athletes in ancient Greece consumed bulls’ testicles in the belief that it improved their performance; others ran slathered in olive oil because they thought it delayed dehydration.

Professor Andy Miah is a bioethicist and chair in science communication and future media at the University of Salford in the UK, and author of Genetically Modified Athletes. He argues rather that our attitude to doping has been shaped by the placing of sport within the context of the wider ‘war on drugs’ over recent decades, combined with what he calls “a nostalgia for the amateur ethos of sport that supposed it was ever just for the sheer enjoyment of play and that sport and sportspeople have not in fact always evolved – in their fitness, in equipment, in training.”

He adds incredulously, “The time may have been when even training for a sports event was frowned on. But sport is actually a very complex, very serious business now. And the actual project of modern sport is the product of a technological society. Sport is now an inherently scientific practice.”

Miah’s solution might be summarised in two words: grow up. Sport, he suggests, has long provided a glimpse into the future, as para-sport’s pioneering use of prosthetic limbs – exceeding the performance of human ones – suggests. And we should see its use of enhancements as simply leading the way for a similar shift to come in society at large. We are embracing the idea of everyday enhancement – Botox parties anyone? – and, as the recent advent of the Crispr gene editing technology suggests, will gradually need to come to terms with the prospect too of new forms of enhancement changing us on a more profound level.

We don’t think less of the energy drink or Ritalin-fueled student sitting his exams, or the caffeinated executive making a presentation, nor of the amphatemine-pumped soldiers of World War II so why think less of an athlete who has simply made use of what will inevitably be a growing number of options to improve their performance? Far better, and safer, to push for transparency, and for elite sportspeople to be given carefully-monitored access to whatever they want to use. 

Naturally enough, Miah often has fun riling people by making such an argument. It doesn’t sit comfortably, representing as it does a serious, unsettling shift in values. The medical profession, for example, has a hard time accepting the idea of drugs functioning not to repair but improve, which in turn limits experimentation on healthy subjects to develop healthy drugs. “And the gut reaction for most everyday people is to maintain the status quo because people have some pre-conceived idea of what’s ‘natural’,” he argues. “That or they really have no idea about what elite athletes already do within the rules.”

Would an access-all-enhancements scenario change the way we view sport? Miah argues that it need not do so. We already adjust our perceptions on a sport by sport basis depending on its staging, expecting different kinds of entertainment from WWE bouts than we do, say, from snooker. “Besides, doping is no replacement for training or talent,” Miah suggests. “What doping does is allow you to train harder. You still have to train. You still need the talent.”

And yet it’s undeniable that this way of thinking about sport – allowing it to wend its technological way as culture does – feels hard to accept, even with blissful ignorance and sentimentality allowed for. Murray concedes that sport will never be drug-free – much as many now argue the ‘war on drugs’ is ultimately doomed – but reckons the effort to get close to it is worth it.

“Can you defeat doping?” he asks. “You can never declare a final victory because, people being people, some will always want to dope, or will be groomed to it. But can we make sufficient progress to create a line up in which anyone at that line has a fair chance of winning without doping? Yes, I think we can. It’s about changing the culture among athletes. It’s telling that typically it’s athletes who want the most draconian punishment because they’re the ones getting screwed.”

Murray and Miah are unlikely to agree. Murray argues that “enhancement is not a bad thing, per se, it’s about its impact” and that any drug permitted would immediately introduce a new base level for any athlete who wants to compete. “The problem with doping is that it’s tyrannical,” he suggests. There would be an arms race. “There’s always been an arms race,” counters Miah. Yet Murray further argues that, with the knowledge that our sports heroes were drug-free, if not entirely enhancement-free, the way we appreciate their achievements would change for the better. “Were it to happen I think sport without enhancements – and I’d be happy to do away with the likes of hyperbaric chambers as I would banned substances – would actually only enhance our commitment to sport without enhancements. We’d have a kind of artisinal sport.”

But much as genetic enhancements may seem a long, long way off, so too might the kind of sport Murray proposes. Both may prove impossible dreams. In the meantime, while you slob on the sofa with your fizzy drink and pizza to enjoy the Rio Olympics, be conscious of the fact that in the six months before London 2012, some 107 athletes tested positive for doping, while numerous athletes who passed tests have since been found to be using banned substances too. Ask whether that knowledge changes the way you feel about those athletes who achieve superhuman feats in front of you. Ask whether their bid to be, as the Olympic motto has it, “faster, higher, stronger” – and perhaps especially higher – really feels contrary to the spirit of the competition at all.