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Performance Enhancement – Athletes are Victims not Delinquents

To describe the obvious power dynamic in modern sports industry from my personal point of view, I’m going to make use of a little metaphor. Therefore you have to imagine sport as a squash game played by several opponents. The competitors, hitting the ball from one corner into the other, represent the different stakeholders in elite-sports. Spectators, coaches, sponsors, national and international associations to mention a few. Of course there’s also one tiny ball incarnating the athlete himself as a kind of focal point, trying to satisfy the different demands. As a ball you’re certainly one of the most important parts of the game. But simultaneously you might be very easy to manoeuvre, because your being spherical, which could imply your lack of personal influence. Merely your ability to leave behind a little black marking on the squash court “wall of fame” is your only chance to colour your sport individually. As an elite sportsperson you’ve almost no opportunity to defend yourself against the prevailing key-players in the system. Otherwise you’re going to risk your career or even your status as a moral competitor. In the following lines, I’ll try to explain my position by disclosing the maladministration and mild coercion top-athletes are confronted with, emphasising four different issues of the “sports-system”.

1. The system provides doping

To substantiate this provocative thesis, I’d like to make the connection to the Tour de France or similar intense competitions requiring weeks of top performance. The main reason, why cyclists began to abuse performance enhancing methods in such an excessive manner is certainly not because they’re poorly prepared for the race. It’s because the competition itself (in this case the TdF) demands inhuman physical capacities. You don’t need to be an expert to be able to recognize that 3642 kilometres within 23 days and only 2 (!) days of recovery can’t be healthy at all. Despite the fact elite-sport is not much about health, these numbers imply a daily distance of 173.5 km on average, of course under contest conditions. Additionally, four of the six mountain stages take place in the second half of the Tour (superfluous to mention that every of them are above 174 km). Just to make clear: In my mind not the length of each single stage, which is questionable, it is more about the short interval between the stages and the repetition for more than three weeks. Maybe these facts already made my point clear. In other words, you can’t deceive your body. It simply depends on regular nutrition, hydration and recovery to keep a natural level of performance. Ignoring this fact would mean to legitimise excessive artificial performance enhancement. And we are actually ignoring it. So doping is just an inevitable corollary. In fact, during the Tour cyclists are getting infusions for nutrition and hydration (H. Lenk, 2006), because the human body is physiologically not able to restore its stock this fast (until next competition starts, normally on the subsequent day). Finally we have to keep in mind, the Tour de France is only one of several long-distance events in the race-calendar.

2. Punishing the athlete is no accurate anti-doping policy

From an ethical perspective punishing the committed athlete is a short sighted and almost inacceptable way to deal with doping offences. As I mentioned in the introduction, many different groups have interests linked with the athletes’ performance and can strongly influence his choices. Consequently, they also have to be held to responsibility. To argue for instance: Had you heard of Festina watches before 1998? On one hand the Festina scandal definitely put the company in a bad light, but on the other hand it gave them a lot of publicity. The paradox is that there’s a close connection between the sponsor and a specific sport, but almost none of the spectators would expect the sponsor to be charged for the doping practice of their athletes. Though that’s the crucial. To be hypercritical and provocative: Gaining public presence as a sponsor because “your” athlete has been convicted of taking performance enhancing substances is a free-marketing platform. No matter, whether it’s good or bad news, it is publicity you can use as an instrument to sell your product. In this case it’s even more decadent, because bad news generally creates bigger responses than good news. Anyway when it comes to the “disgrace” of doping, an investor in fact enjoys double benefit. Firstly it’s public appearance and secondly he (the sponsor) still has the opportunity to feign being a representative of proper sportsmanship by distancing themselves from their disgraced athletes. Of course this is an exaggerated way to argue, but nevertheless it is worth thinking about, at least to reflect the relations of power in elite sports. Finally, we also mustn’t ignore the fact that coaches and staff-members obviously actively connive the abuse of illegal performance enhancing methods by their protégés. Remember the Spanish Tour de France doctor Fuentes.

The athlete, as the last link in this chain, is finally the scapegoat, which is supposed to be punished. In my opinion that’s superficial anti-doping policy, which doesn’t affect the origin of the problem. Doubtlessly, it’s the athlete, who’s going to make the final decision, but maybe it was the coach, a staff-member or even a deputy of the sponsor, who coerced him/her into it. That’s incitement for doping and should be considered as well.

3. Stop criminalization

If we regard the punishment of the athlete as no accurate anti-doping policy, it will become necessary to change the basis of restrictions. As I already mentioned in a previous blog post, it might make sense to cut-off between legal and illegal by focusing on medical issues. That would mean, if a physiological parameter like the haematocrit (HCT) is too high (>50%) a close correlation to heart/lung failures and stroke is given. So the athlete would not be allowed to take part in official competitions as long as the specific parameter does not normalize. This would not depend on whether the athlete abused performance enhancing substances or not. Therefore the basis of this kind of restriction is not because of a criminal intention, it’s just an objective medical necessity. You could use similar objective benchmarks in regulating other parameters like steroids.

4. Athletes abused as medical test animals

To my view the common argument that athletes’ health might be threatened by abusing steroids and pharmaceuticals bought on the black market is not sound. Almost every professional athlete is supported by a medical team, which is competent enough in issues of sports medicine. Supplementary, drugs given to athletes for enhancement reasons are often already in medical use and thus officially recognized. Another serious topic in this case is gene-doping. Imagine gene-doping is legal. What if a couple wants their son to become next Haile Gebreselassie and managed to increase his blood count artificially because of a medical intervention in the EPO-gene? This young boy would be genetically doped, but he may never know that, unless he actually becomes an elite sportsman. When this happens, he’ll be disqualified during his first national competition under suspicion of abusing performance enhancing substances. Furthermore he’ll be labelled as a cheater and a bad role model with a lack of moral responsibility. Obviously without having a clue, why all this happens to him (also see: Claudio M. Tamburrini, 2001).

To summarize, athletes, as the last link of a long chain of individual interests and claims, are to some parties just a mean for the purpose. The reason may be a lack of identification with the athlete himself or even social indifference. Nevertheless, elite-sportsmen should be able to enjoy a better protection from their associations and should be motivated to resist the temptation of illegal performance enhancers by their coaching-staff more intensively. The responsibility for performance enhancing practises might therefore be divided on to several shoulders. In reality these requirements won’t be achievable as long as professional and currently active top sportsmen represent the interests of elite-athletes opposite sponsors, associations and governments. To bypass those complex structures of egoism, I think it may be a promising concept to establish a politically independent speaker, whose single function would be to represent the values of his specific team. This system would also allow the athlete to anonymously make clear his point of view and furthermore without fearing political or financial consequences. Beyond the individual representation of a team, the community of spokesperson might be similar to a workers union.

To conclude, under the disguise of zero-tolerance, anti-doping campaigners may transform into self-appointed ambassadors of proper sports. As a result, convicted competitors are pushed into a kind of single-fighter-status, because of insufficient social back-up from the different groups and people, who have interests in them. This affects the integrity of athletes. Although sports is show, social/respectful behaviour is not only a matter of sophisticated coexistence in general, it is also a right of publicly exposed persons like elite athletes.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. I’m a bit uncomfortable with the apparent implication that the athletes themselves, described here as “victims” and “animals”, should not be expected to take moral and legal responsibility for their own actions. We may deplore the pressure that athletes are coming under and wish to find ways to stop it happening, but I don’t think we should not go as far as to portray them as the main victims here. That said, in general I find this a highly insightful analysis of what is driving doping in sports, as well as containing a constructive and interesting suggestion about what to do about it.

  2. This distinction shows the dysfunction of the concept of moral responsibility and the superiority of the ethical concept of “the right thing to do”. What if we did’t care about whom to blame? We would probably shift our attention to the best way to prevent particular harm. We wouldn’t be stopped by the canard that one is blaming the victim, because all we see are participants, some of whom are harmed in some way by particular conduct. Blaming raises all kinds of bogus claims about free choice and self-responsibility without considering the factors that cause particular people to decide in favor of particular conduct, however harmful it might be to them. Indeed, their assessment of costs and benefits might be quite rational when they choose to take amphetamines.

    In the case of steroids, athletes (who have pressure on them to survive as major players) and fans (who might be tempted by the players’ use of steroids to use them themselves) are put at risk and that risk is heightened by the proliferation of sources of steroids and the price reduction caused by competition. Blaming and talking about free choice simply misses the point when one talks about whether one should leave people to their own devices in particular circumstances.

  3. Dennis, I agree that talking about who to “blame” is unhelpful, but equally well I don’t think we can just do away with the concept of moral responsibility altogether. Suppose we have deided what we think is the best way to prevent harm. Who is then responsible for taking the appropriate action? And if it’s not moral responsibility that we are talking about, then what kind of responsibility is it? Similarly, to live successfully we need to make decisions, and how can you make decisions if you don’t have a concept of free choice?

    My own take on free choice vs external causation is that it is simply a difference of perspective, rather like wave-particle duality or looking at a hologram from different angles. We can consider ourselves (and each other) as participants, influencing and being influenced by each other, and we can consider ourselves (and each other) as moral beings, making free choices and being responsible for them. To live successfully, we must do both – and we must know which perspective to choose for which purpose.

  4. Dennis J. Tuchler


    The question about who is responsible is a normative one that is answered by the modern Common Law of torts (as I understand it as an American lawyer). You can’t answer this question by referring to moral responsibility, but rather by asking who is in the best position to avoid the harm.

    The problem of free will is not only one of causation; it is also about how one understands the individual and the nature of individual liberty. If my choice is caused by what I am and what I have learned, then one cannot talk sensibly about my moral responsibility for anything. On the other hand, one can insist that I be held responsible because I was in the best position to avoid the harm. I hope that doesn’t make me descend into utilitarianism. I think your reference to quantum theory makes it even more difficult for one to think about free will. We may be beaten about by quarks and suchlike and not by choices made rationally taking all relevant things into account. But, more seriously, one interesting feature of determinism is that changes in ones decisions are caused externally — by influences of the environment including what one learns from friends and teachers.

  5. Dennis; your statement referring “changes in ones decision are caused externally — by influences of the environment including what one learns from friends and teachers” is actually the message I intended in my first blog. As a matter of fact, sports incarnates an environmental component, which influence is maneuverable in a certain way. In my mind, this is a property of sports, we ought take advantage of to transport an important moral message.

    With respect to Peter’s remark concering responsibilities. Entitle athletes as “victims”, doubtlessly implies that there must be an offender causing this inequality (and therefore somebody, who’s responsible for that kind of development). But to work out a constructive “solution” (maybe I should rather make use of the term “compromise”), according to the artificial enhancement debate, blaming a certain party in this system might be the wrong way. Nevertheless, responsibilities have to be identified in order to be able to intervene efficiently. This leads us, as Dennis mentioned, to the question “who is in the best position to avoid the harm?” (In this case, “the harm” is actually the spreading of the message that the abuse of drugs is an inevitable necessity to reach your goals.)Additionally, you considered the fact of having the opportunity (as an athlete) to be able “making free choices and being responsible for them”. In this context, can you be held responsible for a choice, which is not based on a free decision?

  6. Let’s indeed use sport, with its rich tapestry of influences (between sport and its cultural environment, between the different actors involved in sport) to tranmit an important moral message.

    But which one?

    In response to Dennis I would suggest that legal responsibility and moral responsibility are two closely related but different, and equally necessary, concepts. Not everything, after all can or should be decided by the courts, unless we include also the “courts” of public opinion and peer pressure. The idea that responsibility depends on whether one is in “the best position to avoid harm” is an interesting one, but if (for example) I witness a violent act and have the power to prevent it, do I have the obligation to do so? In this case I am probably not in the best position to avoid harm – the perpetrator of the violent act is – but does that remove from me any moral or legel responsibility myself?

    As far as free choice is concerned, my choices are undoubtedly caused by what I am and what I have learned, as well as myriad other factors, which almost certainly include quantum fluctations occurring in my own brain. From such a scientific perspective, I would agree that one can neither talk sensibly about free choice nor about moral responsibility. So change your perspective.

    We are not obliged to use the word “free” to mean “uncaused”. We can simply accept responsibility (both moral and legal) for our own actions, and expect others to do the same. This, I would suggest, is the moral message that we should transmit.

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