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Drugs in sport debate: Opposer’s update

by John William Devine

Julian’s response to the problem of doping is to throw in the towel.

He argues that the ban should be relaxed to address cheating: ‘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’.

Relaxing the ban limits the number of ways that cheats can gain an unfair advantage. It is far from clear, however, that reducing the variety of ways by which athletes can cheat will result in fewer instances of cheating. Provided that some ban on doping is retained, the possibility of cheating by doping remains. If the cheating ‘game’ is as stark as Julian describes in his opening statement, these possibilities will surely be exploited by those of a mind to seek unfair advantage.

If Julian wishes to eliminate perverse incentives to dope while also retaining his belief in the impossibility of effectively policing a ban then he must close off the possibility of cheating by doping. For this, he must commit to abolishing – not merely relaxing – the ban.

However, abolishing – or even significantly relaxing – the ban would throw the baby out with the bathwater. Even if it proved an effective way to eliminate cheating, the significant relaxation of the ban would threaten to undermine that which gives us reason to care about sport in the first place.

Julian argues that doping is consistent with the purposes of sport because ‘To choose to be better is to be human’. This misses the point of dispute. Perhaps the most powerful objection to doping is that its effects do not enhance athletic performance but rather undermine it as a feat of human excellence.

Sport can be corrupted not only by athletes who violate the rules but also by legislators who create them. As I argued in my opening statement, rules can be formulated either so that an excellence that is thought central to a sport ceases to be necessary for success or so that an excellence is elevated in importance in a way that is contrary to the ‘balance of excellences’ of that sport. Significantly relaxing the ban on doping risks corrupting sport by subverting its purposes – the display of human excellences of body, mind and will. 

Julian’s proposal is not about embracing change, it is about capitulating in the face of cheating. By lifting the ban on drugs we eliminate one source of unfairness in competition but only at the cost of undermining that which gives these contests meaning and value. In an attempt to reduce corruption in sport, Julian’s approach risks the corruption of sport. We must not flinch in defending the integrity of sport, we much not falter in the fight to eradicate doping.

[Comments and contributions to the debate are welcome – either here, or
over on the official Oxford Online Debates website]

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