Is it time to allow drugs in sport?

You can now say you've won as many Tour De France Titles as Lance Armstrong. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons project

You can now say you’ve won as many Tour De France Titles as Lance Armstrong. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons project

Earlier this week, Lance Armstrong gave an interview to Oprah Winfrey, and in a move that surprised nobody, finally confessed to using performance enhancing drugs throughout much of his cycling career. The United States Anti Doping Agency have pursued Armstrong so zealously, not because he is a simple drug cheat, but because they allege he was the mastermind of a sophisticated doping ring.

Armstrong is accused of coercing his fellow teammates into using performance enhancing drugs, and burying anyone who refused to go along. Armstrong has aggressively defended his reputation, suing anyone who spoke out against him, including a former team assistant Emma Reilly, who tried to expose him as early as 2003.

Armstrong’s crimes are inexcusable, and he certainly deserves to be stripped of his Tour De France titles and his Olympic Bronze medal, but what of the other athletes who were reluctantly drawn into Armstrong’s schemes?

Business Insider compiled statistics on the Tour De France competitions in which Armstrong was active. The results are damning.

“21 top-3 finishers from 1999 to 2005 were doing it, and 36 of 45 top-3 finishers from 1996 to 2010 were doing it. Take a look at this paragraph (which was slipped into the introduction of the report without much comment) in the USADA report:

Twenty of the twenty-one podium finishers in the Tour de France from 1999 through 2005 have been directly tied to likely doping through admissions, sanctions, public investigations or exceeding the UCI hematocrit threshold. Of the forty-five podium finishes during the time period between 1996 and 2010, thirty-six were by riders similarly tainted by doping.

So in a 15-year period, there were only 9 riders who managed to succeed without cheating, according to the USADA.”

Cycling isn’t the only sport affected. Olympic officials have retroactively stripped eleven athletes of fourteen medals from they Sydney 2000 olympics for drug use, including several from Track and Field Star Marion Jones.

Marion Jones was tied to BALCO labs, a clandestine drug ring responsible for supplying performance enhancing drugs to track and field stars, NFL players and Major League Baseball players including Barry Bonds. There can be no doubt that professional sports are rife with performance enhancing drug use, but the simple fact that it is widespread isn’t sufficient to allow it. Let’s take a look at some of the other major arguments for allowing athletes to use performance enhancing steroids.

We Already Allow Athletes to Purchase Performance Enhancing Technology

There are many ways to get performance boosts, but few that make me feel as squeamish as this. Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons

There are many ways to get performance boosts, but few that make me feel as squeamish as this. Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Perhaps the most compelling argument for keeping performance enhancers banned is to allow a level playing field for all athletes. Armstrong’s case has shown us just how widespread drug use is in sport, and it would be very hard to fault an emerging athlete who was lured into drug use simply to make sure he remained competitive. Despite this, designer drugs can be incredibly expensive, and many athletes simply will not be able to afford them.

If we are to keep drugs banned for this reason, we would also need to ban a variety of other training tools available to athletes. Armstrong confessed to using EPO, a drug that assists in delivering oxygen to muscles, which is a godsend for endurance athletes. Of course, there are other ways to hack your body to improve oxygen delivery, including expensive altitude training.

Even more broadly, money provides access to better trainers, better facilities– and in sports like cycling– better equipment. To be consistent and fair to athletes across the world, we would need to cap team budgets.

Professional Athletes Already Damage Their Bodies in Pursuit of their Sport

In 2011, former NFL player Dave Duerson comitted suicide. As part of his final wishes, he was adamant that his brain be donated to NFL’s “brain bank” so it could be used to study the effects of long term head injury on the brain. He wasn’t the only one, Junior Seau did the exact same thing. Junior was found to have brain abnormalities indicative of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. According to wikipedia, symptoms of CTE include disorientation, confusion, vertigo, headaches, poor judgment, overt dementia, slowed muscular movements, staggered gait, impeded speech, tremors and deafness.

It’s not just athletes in contact sports that are at risk of injury. The average career length of a professional athlete is between 3-5 years When scientists did a study of professional tennis players they found

A 1989 Danish study  suggested that elite male tennis players suffered 2.3 injuries per player per 1,000 playing hours. Of these, 45% were upper limb injuries, 17% shoulder, 67% the result of overuse, 14% strains, 17% sprains, 2% fractures and 5% blisters.

Given professional athletes can almost certainly expect to have their careers cut short by permanent injury, and that many performance enhancing drugs aid in short term recovery from injury, it is supremely naive to assume athletes will avoid performance enhancing drugs simply because they come with risks.

Allowing Drugs in (some) Competitions Will Allow Us To Keep Others Clean

The International Federation of Bodybuilders allegedly disallows performance enhancing drugs, but does not test competitors. For athletes that want to compete without using performance enhancing drugs, they turn to “natural” bodybuilding organisations such as the International Natural Bodybuilding Association. I see no reason why we couldn’t allow parallel organisational bodies for other sporting events. There could be a “natural” and “open” cycling or football governing bodies. Anyone caught doping in a “natural” event is subject to existing sanctions, and those that choose to compete in a sport that allows doping would be given access to better medical and harm minimization advice.

Given that our testing authorities are in a constant arms race with the dopers, letting these athletes compete in a separate, regulated environment may be the only way to effectively manage their influence on professional sport.

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Categories: Beliefs, Morals, Crime, Entertainment, Health, Medicine

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