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

[This is the first post in the Trinity term Oxford University 
Online Debate
. Feel free to comment on any of the debate either at this blog or over at the official debate website. Votes can be cast after the concluding statements – between 5th and 9th July]

by Julian Savulescu

Two great sporting events are about to commence. Le Tour de France and the Football World Cup. Doping will play a part in both of these. In every professional sport where doping could confer an advantage, there is doping. Even if it is not widespread and even if you don’t know about it.

This is most obvious in Le Tour. Since it began in 1903, riders have used drugs to cope with the ordeal, resorting to alcohol, caffeine, cocaine, amphetamines, steroids, growth hormone, EPO and blood doping. But all sports, even the World Cup, face the drug problem. The enormous rewards for the winner, the effectiveness of the drugs and the low rate of testing all create a cheating 'game' that has proved irresistible to some athletes. It is irresistible because of human nature. And the cheating athletes are now winning.

Drugs such as EPO and growth hormone are natural chemicals in the body and are hard to detect. And the task will get tougher still. Athletes have returned to simple blood doping (having their own blood donated prior to competition and retransfused during the event), which is virtually impossible to detect if done properly. Gene doping, for example, will be equally difficult to detect. This is a technique which allows the introduction of genes into an athlete's own genetic material, or DNA, to improve muscular strength or endurance.

Also, the injection of an insulin-like growth factor (proven to increase muscle strength in mice) into the muscles of athletes would be simple. Detection would require muscle biopsy, slicing a core of muscle to examine under a microscope, which would be dangerous and difficult. EPO genes could also be directly integrated into athletes' DNA. Such gene therapy already works in monkeys.

There are only two options. We can try to ratchet up the war on doping. But this will fail, as the war on all victimless crimes involving personal advantage have failed (look at the war on alcohol, drugs and prostitution). Or we can regulate the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Some performance enhancers which were once illegal, such as caffeine, have been legalised because they are safe enough. This has had no adverse effects on sport and has removed the necessity of policing a ban and the problem of cheating.

Some controversy could have been avoided if we allowed riders to take EPO or blood dope up to some safe level, for example where their red blood cells make up 50 per cent of their blood. This level is deemed safe by the International Cycling Union and this level is easily detected by a simple, reliable and cheap blood test. Other drugs such as growth hormone can be monitored by evaluating athletes' health, looking for signs of excess, rather than trying to detect what is a normal hormone.

A rational, realistic approach to doping would be to allow safe performance-enhancing drugs which are consistent with the spirit of a particular sport, and to focus on evaluating athletes' health. Some interventions would change the nature of a sport, like creating webbed hands and feet in swimming, and should be banned on those grounds. But the use of drugs to increase endurance is a part of sport’s history.

The rules of a sport are not God-given, but are primarily there for 4 reasons: (1) they define the nature of a particular display of physical excellence; (2) create conditions for fair competition; (3) protect health; (4) provide a spectacle. Any rule must be enforceable. The current zero tolerance to drugs fails on the last three grounds and is unenforceable. The rules can be changed. We can better protect the health of competitors by allowing access to safe performance-enhancement and monitoring their health. We provide a better spectacle if we give up the futile search for undetectable drugs, and focus on measurable issues relevant to the athlete's health.

Given the pay-offs in terms of glory and money, some athletes will always access a black market of dangerous banned drugs which confer an extra advantage. But overall, regulated access is better than prohibition, as the honest athletes presently have no access to performance-enhancers.
Under a regulated market, they would have access to some safe performance-enhancers. This would narrow the advantage gap between the cheats and the honest athletes. And we would create a stimulus for the market to produce new, safe performance- enhancers. Limited resources could be better deployed to detect the dangerous drugs.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) claims that performance enhancement is against the spirit of sport. But caffeine does not appear to have corrupted the Olympics. Athletes already radically change their bodies through advanced, technologically-driven training regimes. Tour riders receive intravenous artificial nutrition and hydration overnight because their bodies cannot take on enough food and fluid naturally.

Ben Johnson, stripped of his 100 metres Olympic gold at the 1988 Games, said that the human body was not designed to run the speeds it is called upon to run now, and steroids were necessary to recover from the gruelling training and injuries. Jacques Anquetil, the great French cyclist, once asked a French politician if "they expect us to ride the Tour on mineral water". Far from demonising these great athletes, we should admire them.

The use of drugs to accelerate recovery and to enhance the expression of human ability are a part of the spirit of sport. Some drugs, such as the modest use of EPO or growth hormone, can enhance the expression of physical excellence in sport. The challenge is to understand the spirit of each sport, and which drugs are consistent with this. But performance-enhancement per se is not against the spirit of sport; it is the spirit of sport. To choose to be better is to be human.

What is ruining sport is cheating. But cheating can be reduced by changing the rules. Cheating can be better reduced by allowing drugs rather than banning them.

Adapted from:
It is time to allow doping at Tour de France
Telegraph 30 July 2007
Savulescu, J. and Foddy, B. (forthcoming) Le Tour and Failure of Zero Tolerance: Time to Relax Doping Controls. In Savulescu, J., Kahane, G and Ter Meulen, R.(eds) Enhancing Human Capacities, Blackwell, forthcoming 2010

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

Image credit: Qrodo at flickr

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