Skip to content

Oxford Debates – Performance enhancing drugs should be allowed in sport – Opposer’s opening statement

Oxford Online Debates

by John William Devine

In just over two years the world’s elite athletes will descend on the U.K. for London 2012. Should these athletes be permitted to use performance enhancing drugs or should the fight to eliminate such drugs from sport continue? The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) maintains that the use of performance enhancing drugs (doping) is contrary to the ‘spirit of sport.' While WADA’s account of the spirit of sport is frustratingly underdeveloped, the idea that the purpose of sport provides reason to prohibit doping captures something important.

Rules in sport are designed in part so that success can be achieved only by competitors who display certain excellences of body, mind and will. Practices which impair the display of these excellences should be prohibited. The use of a stepladder in the high jump, a catapult in the javelin or a bicycle in the marathon all prevent the relevant excellences (throwing, jumping and running) being displayed. To call any of these practices an ‘enhancement’ in these events is a misnomer. Far from improving performance, their use obscures the display of the relevant excellences. Such practices undermine the integrity of these sports and, consequently, are rightly prohibited.

Doping is similarly liable to undermine the integrity of sport. It can do this by:

Preventing a relevant excellence from being displayed at all.


Elevating one type of excellence to an unwarranted level of importance.

To demonstrate the first threat to the integrity of sport posed by doping, consider the case of archery. Part of the challenge of archery is to maintain near-perfect balance so that one’s shot is not misdirected by, among other things, an unsteady or nervous hand. The use of beta-blockers to reduce one’s natural tremor is rightly prohibited in archery and other target sports like shooting. By reducing the natural tremor, beta-blockers serve to remove one of the excellences that the sport is designed to call forth in competitors. While beta-blockers may increase the accuracy of a competitor’s shots, the sport is the worse for their use because the user’s performance displays a narrower range of excellences.

Next, consider high-risk sports like rugby, boxing, rugby or American football. One of the excellences that outstanding athletes in these sports display is the control of fear. If rugby players doped in a way that dampened their fear of physical injury then their performance would in a certain respect be less admirable. Such a drug would prevent the player from displaying the courage that is partly constitutive of excellence qua rugby player. 

As the above examples suggest, supposed enhancements can undermine the integrity of sports by hindering or preventing the display of excellences around which the sport is organised. However, not only are the rules organised around the display of different types of excellence, they are organised so that different excellences contribute to performance to different degrees. That is, different excellences should play only so important a role in determining the outcome of competition relative to the other excellences that a sport is organised around.

Andy Murray prepares to lead British hopes at Wimbledon in week’s time with a playing style based on patience, deftness of touch and strategic nous. It was precisely these excellences that were threatened in the Championships of the 1990s. As players grew stronger and rackets became more powerful, power servers became dominant. One type of excellence – powerful serving – assumed too much prominence in the style of tennis that prevailed at the time. Players with games based around the display of excellences like Murray’s found it increasingly difficult to succeed. 

In response to this trend, adjustments were made to the court surface and ball pressure to encourage longer, more strategic rallies. These efforts to slow down the game might be best explained as an attempt to redress the ‘balance of excellences’ in the sport, that is, to reshape the playing conditions so that a broader range of excellences valued in the sport could be displayed in the performance of those successful in the sport.

Doping poses a similar threat to the balance of excellence in different sports. Lifting the ban on doping promises to unduly elevate in importance the capacity to metabolise these substances. In addition, the effects of their use on the performance of athletes may elevate certain excellences like power and speed at the expense of others, in a similar way to that which occurred in Wimbledon. Thus, the importance of other excellences in performance is diminished in a way that is inconsistent with the purposes around which the sport is organised.

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. Sporting authorities, in consultation with players, coaches and fans need to reflect on what excellences should be prized in their respective sports. This background understanding of the purpose of the sport provides the necessary context within which debate about doping can take place.

What is at stake in this debate is not just the health of our athletes or the fairness of competition but the very purpose of sport. We must fiercely oppose the pernicious effects of doping so we can ensure that what we celebrate in London 2012 are not tainted performances but rather outstanding displays of authentic sporting excellence.

For more posts and material relating to the debate see the Drugs in Sport Special Edition

Image: Koramchad on flickr

Share on