Not ‘How we can improve detection and make punishment serve as both deterrent and restitution,’ but ‘Should we allow athletes to use drugs?’ My answer is yes.
Were we to treat athletes as mature adults capable of making informed decisions based on scientific information, we could permit the use of performance enhancing substances, monitor the results and make the whole process transparent.
Instead we continue to demonize those found guilty of doping violations, willing ourselves into ignorance.
Athletes take unknown substances, procured from unknown sources and with uncertain results. Permitting the use of doping would rescue sport from this clandestine state, creating an environment that would be not only safer, but more congruent with the reality of professional sport in the 21st century.
Twenty-four years after the Johnson scandal, performance-enhancing drugs are as abundant as ever and, as the Armstrong experience reminds us, the testers remain embarrassingly behind the curve. Despite the major advances since 1988, several athletes have evaded detection not just for the odd competition, but for entire careers.
Before Armstrong, American sprinter Marion Jones was convicted and imprisoned, though, like Armstrong, she never returned a positive drug test (she was found guilty of impeding a Federal investigation). Nor did baseball’s Barry Bonds, who was convicted on one count of misleading a grand jury investigating drug use by athletes in 2011.
No sensible observer of sport today denies the prevalence of drugs in practically every major sport, yet none would argue they can ever be eliminated completely. Money alone guarantees that much. The days of the gentleman-amateur have long gone: Athletes today are competing for high stakes, not just millions, but dozens of millions (Armstrong is worth about $70 million, according to Forbes).
In a culture that encourages the constant search for the limits of human achievement, we, the fans, the consumers of popular sports entertainment, revel in record-breaking, gravity-defying, barely believable feats on the field of play. Promoters, leagues, sponsors, advertisers and a miscellany of other interested parties dangle incentives.
Armstrong got rich thanks to the beneficence of people who didn’t just back him but lauded, even lionized him as the greatest cyclist ever, and perhaps pound-for-pound one of the world’s finest sportsmen. Small wonder he was motivated to gamble: a quick cost-benefit calculation would have told him the chances of detection were slight compared with the bounties available.
The objections are predictable:
This is cheating. In a technical sense, perhaps; but that could be fixed by changing the rules. In a moral sense, it is unfair on those competitors who do not wish to use drugs. The evidence of the Armstrong investigation suggests that many other cyclists were habitual dopers, anyway. We can’t say the same for other sports, though we can remind competitors that among the array of performance enhancing aids which are available to them, such as acupuncture, hypnotism, hypoxic tents (that simulate high altitude) and the countless other perfectly legal performance enhancements are some that are probably more dangerous than drugs.
Taking drugs is wrong. Maybe, but how many of us get through a day without taking a pharmaceutical product, such as statins, antidepressants, painkillers and so on? By an accident of language we use the same term for these products and performance enhancing materials as we do for illicit drugs like crack cocaine and heroin. This misleads us into imagining related objections.
There are too many dangers. Of course there are — as the situation is now. By inviting athletes to declare with impunity what they are using, we encourage and open discourse and promote research so we’d be in a position to advise on the relative values and risks of different substances. This openness isn’t possible while we continue to force drug-taking underground. Opening up sport in the way I’m advocating would render it a safer, more secure environment.
Sports stars are role models. Possibly. But they are not paragons of virtue, and even if they were, young people who follow them and organize their own naive ambitions around theirs will eventually run into the rock hard reality that drugs are to sport what Twitter is to celebrities — not exactly essential, but a valuable resource when used strategically.
Fans would turn off sport. Ask yourself this: Did you feel a thrill when you saw the imperious Armstrong cross the line at the 2002 Tour de France seven minutes ahead of his nearest rival? Or when you watched Marion Jones surge to victory at the Olympic 100m final in 2000? At the time, we didn’t realize they or, for that matter, any of their rivals had doped. And it didn’t affect our enjoyment of their performances any more than if we’d known they were wearing aerodynamically designed clothing.
The argument in favor of permitting drugs in sport is not popular at a time when the world is busy annihilating Lance Armstrong. But it is rational, sound and in harmony with sport, not as it was in the days of “Chariots of Fire,” but as it is in the twenty first century: Unrelenting, mercilessly competitive and unsparingly achievement-oriented.