Drugs in sport debate: Proposer’s update

by Julian Savulescu

So far, there has been no debate. I agree entirely with nearly all John William’s points.

The topic is “Performance Enhancing Drugs Should Be Allowed in Sport.” It is not “All Performance Enhancing Drugs Should Be Allowed in Sport.” I have argued that some should according to certain criteria, including being consistent with the spirit of that particular sport.


The opposing side should be “No Performance Enhancing Drugs Should Be Allowed in Sport.” This is precisely WADA’s own position, that John William begins with approvingly . If you read WADA’s code, it says “All doping is contrary to the spirit of sport.” It is against the spirit of sport, for WADA, just because it enhances human performance.

John William argues that doping can disturb the expression of excellence in sport or disrupt the balance of excellences. Of course, it can and that would be a reason to ban that particular agent. A drug which made a boxer oblivious to pain and removed all fear, itself turning a man into a raging bull, would be against the spirit of boxing. To box is to be confined in a ring with no assistance, to fight against another man with only yourself and your fear. To remove fear is to remove a fundamental aspect of the sport.

Or as Harrosh points out, a drug that removed or replaced the mental excellence that drives? performance would be against the spirit of sport.

But a drug which protected a boxer’s brain from permanent injury after having been knocked out cold would not be against the spirit of boxing. Death is not a part of the spirit of boxing, though it is a part of a fight to the death.

As Ord astutely put it, some drugs might enhance the balance of excellences. To use Devine’s own example of tennis, power serving took over in the 1990s with the advent of large headed tennis rackets. So they made the balls softer to slow the game down. (Of course, they could have put a limit on racket construction in the first place.) However, if there were a performance enhancer which increased tennis players’ reaction times significantly and safely, like Modafenil, that would have been a more interesting way to restore balance of excellences. It certainly would have made for a more spectacular game, a value which had been sought in creating larger headed tennis rackets that caused the problem in the first place.

In some cases, doping has been intrinsic to a particular sport. The Tour de France is an example. Ever since it began, riders have taken a variety of doping agents. Much of the cheating and shadow could be removed by simply allowing blood doping up to a haematocrit – the proportion of blood volume occupied by red blood cells – of 50.

In the end, John William happily embraces defeat:

“While we began by endorsing WADA’s spirit of sport justification of the ban on doping, an important implication of this approach is that we have reason to depart from WADA’s unified approach to the ban. Different sports are organised around different excellences. Consequently, different types of drugs will threaten the integrity of different sports in different ways. We should tailor doping policy to individual sports or at least to clusters of sports.”

So, we should allow some performance enhancing drugs in sport.

Should we adopt the extreme libertarian position raised by Wilkinson of allowing all doping? Sport is a human defined activity, whose rules are formed to realize several values. If allowing all doping would compromise health, display of human physical excellence and spectacle, we have reason to limit doping. If it does not, we have reason to adopt an “anything goes” policy.

What is clear now is that we have reason to adopt a liberal policy on to doping:  to allow some doping in sport.

At this point, I would like to thank John William for helpfully elaborating my case.

[Dr John William Devine's update will be published on 21st June]

[Comments and contributions to the debate are welcome – either here, or over on the official Oxford Online Debates website]

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