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Artificial Performance Enhancement in Sports – Are we Overreacting?

by Roman Gaehwiler

Within human history sport consistently has been abused as a platform of political disputes and athletes came to be exploited by governments to benefit the economy. The simple competitor has been transformed into a nationalized single warrior and pushed to represent his country as perfectly as possible. This spirit of the “idealized hero”, whose ability stands for the strength and force of a whole nation persisted until the twenty-first century. Of course not in the same dimensions, but there’s no doubt elite-sportspeople are a kind of mirror for society. In connection with the increasing influence of monetary incentives, a simple comparison of physical strength became an inexorable business. Excessive artificial performance enhancement is just an unavoidable result of that. The paradox obviously is that the audience calls for supernatural performances, but at the same does not approve the athlete to do so by taking performance enhancing substances.Therefore it’s legitimate to ask ourselves: “Are we taking sport too seriously?”

Doping is certainly no phenomenon of modern ages. Far from it. Already the ancient Greeks used to fortify their bodies by practising unnatural methods. To be honest, the reason why this debate is now receiving so much attention, is not because we all turned into “knights of morality” within the last decades. And to be honest again, it has not been a problem until we started to discuss this issue officially. So why are we now creating an elephant out of a fly? Just because of our insatiable pursuit of perfectionism? If that is really the point, we might have reached a new level of self-esteem. So according to that, modern and economical anti-doping-policy should be focused on detecting simple physiological parameters like the haematocrit (HCT), instead of chasing after new technologies and scientific methods to prove the abuse of performance enhancing substances are being abused. On the one hand this strategy would be much more affordable and on the other it would definitely reduce the criminalization of the affected athlete. In this case elite-athletes are probably more the victims than the offenders. In this context one of the key-players is certainly the media, whose power is often underrated, although we, the customers of media, are supposed to be critical enough to reflect things rationally. Once stamped as a cheater, you’re out of business forever. As a sportsperson, as well as a human-being and that’s obviously a tragedy. Marion Jones, to mention one example. Despite the fact she was incredibly talented and one of the greatest sportswomen ever, the media and public reaction to her use of performance enhancers has meant she’ll never have the opportunity to return to the professional sports again. Not as a trainer and even not as a co-commentator, either. She might have earned a lot of money during her career, but that’s definitely of little solace for a ruined life. Even though the freedom of the press is one of our highest goods, we probably should feel more responsible for fair-play when it comes to personal integrity. Otherwise it’s exploitation of the athlete.

To come to a conclusion, we’re not taking sport too seriously, but we probably forget from time to time that black letters on white background are not the only truth. Instead of chasing after scientific methods to prove the abuse of performance enhancing drugs or crucify a convicted athlete, we would do better to put a mirror in front of ourselves to reflect our responsibility for this development. In my mind it’s also important to emphasise that sports is not going to have any long lasting impact on political conflicts, but it definitely has an influence on the education of social and respectful behaviour. So in such cases it might be useful to remember Immanuel Kant: “Have the courage to make use of your own intellect.” And of course it’s the same with this little essay.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. I’d prefer another intro like: Elite athletes are a kind of mirror for society, but simultaneously a role model for the young generation. According to the general opinion, being the one looking-up to implies a certain level of moral behaviour. Therefore cheating by abusing performance enhancing substances in sport is obviously a matter of social irresponsibility. Is that really the case or are we just taking sport too seriously?

  2. Roman wrote, inter alia: “Therefore cheating by abusing performance enhancing substances in sport is obviously a matter of social irresponsibility.”

    How is it cheating if it is not in violation of any rules of the sport? It wasn’t against the rules of baseball when it started. On the other hand, there must have been some acknowledgment that it was “wrong” because of the secrecy that surrounded the doping. Why the shame? I suspect that the players thought that somehow it WAS cheating. So there is a norm of, what? Naturalness? The authentic player? The player who isn’t “really” as good as he looks (he actually is, but with the help of drugs). Now, a long time ago, a coach helped a pitcher with hypnosis and post-hypnotic suggestion to calm the pitcher down and get him to focus. Was that cheating? Nobody thought so, probably because it was announced. So the problem with doping must be, not cheating, but fraud. But how is anyone lying? What is the natural or authentic sports-person?

  3. Dennis’ example about the pitcher, who used to be enhanced by getting hypnosis is certainly a very interesting issue referring the question whether it’s doping or not. In my mind the definition of doping implies a lack of self-performance, which means you won’t be able to reach a certain goal without the help of an externally supplied substance. So even if you’re in a hypnotised status your individual performance would be an exclusive result of your physical abilities. So to my mind hypnosis might be defined as a physiological reaction to an environmental stimulus, similar to an intense emotion. According to that I wouldn’t define hypnosis as doping, rather a possibility of physiological enhancement. So to come to a conclusion, the natural or authentic sports-person Dennis was looking for, might be the one, whose abilities allow him to reach his goals without the help of externally supplied substances. In my opinion this person does certainly not exist in elite- or professional-sports. So the natural and authentical sports-person may be the amateur-sportsmen, who sets his aims within the physiological limits of his body.

  4. Roman: I was being a bit ironic when I referred to the “authentic” or “natural” athlete. The latter is a romantic fiction. The former is nonsense; by the time an athlete is trained, and his diet altered, he can’t be authentic any more (if he or she ever was or could have been). Hence my dubiety as to the ethical significance of doping and my emphasis on fraud as the real fault in doping.

    Of course, there are two other victims of doping — the statistic-mad sports fanatic and the sports statistician/keeper-of-halls-of-fame (I recently discovered that the two creatures are found outside of the USA). They still have trouble as to baseball history with pitching and batting average and home run statistics with changes in the length of playing season, stadium design, pitching mound height and in the baseball itself. They can’t adjust numbers and ranking for those changes so they ignore them in their charts. Why not ignore doping, too, in this respect?

  5. Maybe you’re right and it is actually a ROMANtic fiction :-). But in reference to your comment, do you think of ignoring doping in general or just to faciliate the work of the statistician? So then we’ve got two opportunities: Either ignoring doping or rather ignoring statistics. I think the latter might be healthier, so do you?

  6. Roman: I can ignore statistics, but the average American sports fiend can’t. And what do you do with “fantasy” sports on line? As for doping should be ignored if it is openly done. Let the fans vote. If the fans vote right, then the kids (and their coaches) might not be as impressed with the value of doping.

    Of course, the fans might not vote right. Doping might lead to more home runs and more exciting football (US and European), hockey, etc. If that’s what the fans want, that’s what they will get. If enough athletes dope up, maybe that will lead to its acceptance by the fans and its requirement by teams.

    Think of prohibiting what large numbers of people want, and the awful market and criminal results. Moreover, what’s healthier is irrelevant to a considerable number of people, I think. Consider drug use, cigarette smoking despite all sorts of information,locality prohibitions and very high costs, obesity and dental problems caused by too many sweets; etc.

  7. First of all, I really appreciate your effort into this discussion, it’s interesting and challenging at the same time. With regard to the last paragraph of your comment, I’d like to hook the topic of perfectionism. When I got you right, these lines imply that as far as you can’t achieve perfection, it’s not worth to stand up against the questionable demands of a majority. No doubt, that health is irrelevant to a considerable number of people, but by launching anti-doping campaigns you’re definitely going to catch a certain amount of people, what is probably better than nothing. For instance, remember the anti-AIDS efforts, which, of course, are not able to eliminate the virus, but sensitized people according the topic of safer-sex.

    Therefore, national and international associations like the FIFA, IAAF, NHL and so on, have to remain true to their anti-doping policy, even the outcome might be limited.

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