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Doping…When Will We Learn?

The second fastest runner of all time, USA’s Tyson Gay, has reportedly tested positive for a banned substance, along with the Jamaican sprinters Asafa Powell, and Sherone Simpson making for shocked headlines across the world.

But this is just one high profile story amongst a recent rash of news stories across sports and across countries. In athletics, 24  Turkish athletes are confirmed to have tested positive this year; Australian Rules Football is still reeling from the ongoing Essendon scandal; and over in the United States, inquiries into an anti ageing laboratory said to supply human growth hormone to top baseball players are ongoing. Whilst the 100th Tour de France is so far untainted by positive tests, cycling doping cases have continued this year with two Giro D’Italia riders testing positive.

Still there is a sense that we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. Chris Froome, now tested at the end of each stage as the yellow jersey, has been relentlessly hounded over whether his recent impressive performances are due to doping.

1. The Failure of Zero Tolerance

We don’t know which individuals are doping and which are not. One thing we do know is that the zero tolerance ban on doping has failed.

The ‘War on Doping’ has seen several false victories. In 2000, the first EPO tests were introduced. In 2007, Pat McQuaid, head of UCI, declared biological passports “a new and historic step in the fight against doping”. Autologous blood tests were all but announced for the 2012 Olympics, but apparently still not yet not implemented. The science of drug testing has progressed, but it appears that the dopers are a step ahead.

Armstrong is a case in point. He was tested in competition and out of competition, before and after EPO tests were implemented, before and after biological passports were introduced. Yet he was only caught through the forced testimony of his teammates, who turned him in for the chance to continue their own careers as confessed dopers, many of them still riding at the elite, professional level.

The decision of the Spanish court to destroy evidence from Eufemiano Fuentes’ trial means that we may never know who was involved with that particular clinic, but it is thought to include clients from athletics, tennis and football as well as cyclists. Werner Frankepointed out just before the olympics that half of the men’s 100m finalists in the previous 2 olympics were later reported to have been doping. Less than a year after London 2012, if Gay and Powell’s tests are confirmed, we will be half way to the same level at the 2012 final. A third member of the 8 man line up, Justin Gaitlin, was previously banned for doping.

Time and again we are told the culture has changed. But the doping cases keep coming, and performances keep improving. The 2012 Olympics saw 66 Olympic records and 30 world records broken.

2. Nutrition, training and equipment have all improved over time. But there is a limit: human physiology

We reached the limits of human performance in sprinting about 20 years ago. To keep improving, to keep beating records, to continue to train at the peak of fitness, to recover from the injury that training inflicts, we need enhanced physiology. Spectators want faster times and broken records, so do athletes. We have exhausted the human potential.

Is it wrong to aim for zero tolerance and performances which are within natural human limits? No, but it is not enforceable.

Some Counter Arguments

The strongest argument against doping is safety. The harm inflicted on East German athletes must never be repeated. But anything is dangerous if taken to excess. Water will kill you if you drink enough. As sport has shown over last 20 years, performance enhancers can be administered safely. They could be administered yet more safely if it was brought out into the open.

Of course there is no such thing as risk-free sport. But we need a balance between safety, enforceability, and spectacle. Elite sport itself is fundamentally unsafe, as Team Sky’s Edvald Boassen Hagen and Geraint Thomas, both nursing fractures from recent cycling crashes can tell you. It was entirely appropriate to enforce the wearing of helmets to limit the safety risks. But it would be inappropriate to limit the race to only straight, wide roads, or to remove downhill racing or to take any number of other measures that would increase safety but ruin the sport as a spectacle and as a cultural practice. It would be a waste of time to take other measures, such as limiting the amount of time or the speed that riders can train at, even on the grounds of safety. It could not be enforced.

Enforceability requires a reasonable limits. If we set the maximum speed limit for cars to 20 mph, it would be safer. Many, perhaps most of the 1, 901 people who died on the roads in 2011 would be saved. But more people would speed. We need to find a workable, enforceable balance.

A second good objection lies in the nature of the intervention. If a substance came to dominate the sport and override the value of the sport, that would be a good reason to ban it. For example, if boxers could feel no fear, or if archers could be given rock steady hands, it should be impermissible. But if a substance allows safer, faster recovery from training, or from injury then it does not interfere with the sport.

We are confused and often emotional about doping. Drugs bring to mind substances like ecstasy or cocaine or heroin. But most doping today uses natural substances that are involved in normal human physiology and naturally vary from time to time and person to person. Testosterone, blood, and growth hormone are all endogenous substances (which occur naturally within the body) which are banned, while drugs such as caffeine are exogenous – not naturally occurring in the body, and effective in increasing performance, but are allowed. Taking the drug EPO increases hematocrit levels, and is banned. Sleeping in a hypoxic air tent has the same effect, but is perfectly legal.

Athletes are using these substances to optimize their own physiology, just as they do with diet, trying to maximize fluids and glucose at the right times. Confessed doping cyclist Tyler Hamilton claims in his book ‘The Secret Race’ to have lost a race due to failing to take a 100 calorie energy gel at the correct time (despite the fact he was also doping).

All of these variables are themselves affected by training at elite levels. Over the course of the Tour de France, a cyclist would lose their natural levels of red blood cells from the immense effort. Training is about optimizing human physiology, whether by changing the diet to influence the availability of glucose and glycogen, or by taking EPO in order to increase the availability of oxygen.

The risks of doping have been overstated, and zero-tolerance represents the kind of unreasonable limit that is destined to be ignored by athletes. It is time to rethink the absolute ban and instead to pick limits that are safe and enforceable.

More detailed discussion of the ethics of drugs in sport is available via


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4 Comment on this post

  1. Good to have you weighing in. Some drugs busts and the TdF in full swing didn’t feel quite complete without one of your analyses of the current state doping.

    A few of points of partial disagreement. The issue of enforceability is clearly central and seems to me to be absolutely key in setting the context for rules on performance enhancement. The point is taken that the current system is often inconsistent and unenforceable. Usain Bolt may be the result of drugs or procedures most people no nothing of. If everyone else is juicing he may soon find himself as the Lance Armstrong of the sprints. I wonder though if the somewhat libertarian alternative you have often argued for might, though logically consistent, be very problematic in practice. The danger of EPO might be argued to outweigh sleeping in a low oxygen environment. But hey, it’s not like we’re so pure in terms of our appetite for spectacle and danger as things stand. As well as the TdF riders you mention Tony Martin was generally lionised for riding with concussion this year (seriously dangerous to both him and the other riding in a high-speed tight formation). Its complicated either way. The parallel with recreational drugs is (I think) relevant here. It’s the same balance between incentives to take or not to take substances and the problems which flow directly out of prohibition ve the benefits of things being allowed. I wouldn’t want to deny the problems that flow directly from prohibition. The Secret Race is good on the issue of the harms that flow out of prohibition. One does wonder if the dodgy medics who appear might be far less evident in a more open environment. The alternatives to prohibition still seem extremely risky though

    I’d also just slightly question your interpretation of the limits of performance and the exhaustion of natural (whatever that is) human potential. Sprinting has also been influenced by changing surfaces for running, more refined coaching methods and knowledge of physiology. I think it’s also possible to make a case that cycling coaching has perhaps been set back somewhat by the EPO era. In many ways it still seems quite a pre-modern sport in terms of it’s use of technology and something like aerodynamics has been only adopted slowly. There are gains to be had outside of doping. Maybe not enough for us the watchers perhaps but

    Final quick point relates to drugs which might spoil the spectacle. I’m not sure this is always terrible straightforward. The Armstrong hegemony in cycling was, I found anyway, quite dull and somewhat spoiled the interest od the racing. Indurian’s dominance even more so. Clearly not everyone agreed with me though. It might always be easy to decide what spoils and what enhances.

  2. Nice points John and thanks for the compliment. I don’t mean to suggest by any means that I have the answer. It is exactly these kinds of points we should be discussing. My point is simply we should consider dropping the zero tolerance principle advocated by WADA, USADA, ASADA, etc Once you give that up, you can start discussing what a new set of rules might be and what the limits should be. It might be that you ban EPO but allow blood doping. There are many difficult scientific, social and ethical issues. But it seems to me that this whole problem has got bogged down in emotional fanaticism, with no room for serious discussion. As you imply, this won’t be the last doping controversy in sprinting, or in cycling. The pay offs are just too great. And maybe when football is properly implicated, people will have to take notice. There may be some willingness to revise things in American football, though there are also counterbalancing hotbeds of fanatical moralism. One of the major obstacles for people, I was trying to briefly say in this piece, is understanding what doping actually is and how its goal is already a part of sport

  3. A good substitute on the Tour rest day!

    This issue of opening it up beyond zero tolerance is a very good point. Especially the emotion that surrounds matters somewhat fogging the issue. I was discussing this with a colleague the other week: a South African woman absolutely alienated by heavyweight exposure to sport from an early age. That seemed to offer a wonderfully unclouded perspective. Drug use seemed to her to differ very little from some other elements of sport. Admittedly she found those repugnant too but you get my meaning. There wasn’t an emotional attachment to certain elements with others branded as ‘dirty’.

    I find myself thinking about many of my friends attitudes to recreational drugs. They often are very open to more liberal and less authoritarian laws. When it comes to sport though the go a bit Peter Hitchens and want to see justice done. Funny attached we become to particular ways of doing things and how pejorative about alien ones. Fignon never forgave LeMond for those tribars.

  4. Does it matter? Television sport is a branch of the entertainment industry. There will be entertainers doping and others indignantly avoiding banned drugs but still pushing their bodies to very unhealthy limits in the interests of getting attention. My advice: ignore them all. They’re not interesting.

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