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Drugs in sport debate: Proposer’s update 2

by Julian Savulescu

Illegal prostitution still occurs in countries where it has been decriminalised; illegal use of dangerous drugs still occurs in countries which have relaxed their bans on recreational drugs. But overall, such societies are better for their tolerance, their focus on harm reduction, compared to absolutist, prohibitionist societies. So, too, for doping.

I have argued that relaxing the ban on doping would be good for sport (by reducing cheating, reducing the unfair advantage cheaters have, promoting health of athletes and increasing the spectacle of sport). It is not against the spirit of sport, as WADA claims. Allowing some doping agents would be consistent with and in some cases enhance the display of physical excellence of each sport.

John William argues that this proposal would not eliminate cheating. It is only if we adopted the fully libertarian position of abolishing any ban  – instituting an “anything goes” policy – would we eliminate cheating.

But my goal has not been absolutist, to raise one value (elimination of cheating), over all others. Rather, I have advocated a “balance of values” approach. Adopting an anything goes approach would be very damaging to other values – health of athletes would be compromised and it would reduce the display of human physical excellence. It would hardly be any spectacle to watch the 100m final if 9 out of 10 competitors dropped dead of doping toxicity during the event.

The fact that some will cheat under a relaxed doping regime is not the issue for me. The issue is whether fewer cheat and/or whether those who do cheat have less of an advantage. And whether we maintain an optimal balance of values driving sport.

It is an obvious fact that policing is a limited resource. WADA has about $20 million to catch cheats. If fewer agents or practises are banned, limited resources can be devoted to catching those who take banned substances. Resources currently deployed to catch blood dopers in cycling could be redeployed to catching those who use some banned substance like steroids, if the ban on both blood doping and steroids were changed to a ban on steroids alone (though I believe steroids too should be permitted).

Secondly, we can entirely eliminate some forms of cheating. If we removed the ban on blood doping and set a simple measurable haematocrit, like 50% of blood volume, how could athletes cheat to get around this? Gene therapy? EPO? All these would express themselves in the red cell mass, but this would be measurable. Physiology provides the performance advantage. So if we measure physiology, and not how it was caused, we stand a much better eliminating or reducing cheating.

John William’s other point is that “relaxing the ban on doping risks corrupting sport by subverting its purposes – the display of human excellences of body, mind and will.” I have addressed this point a number of times. Some will, and they should be banned. But others won’t.

Caffeine has not corrupted the display of physical excellence.

Allowing steroids to assist recovery maintains John William’s “balance of excellences” because it promotes greater drive to train harder and to recover. Steroids work by promoting tissue repair after the athlete has torn her muscles as a part of training hard. The steroid only works when the athlete puts in great effort to accelerate normal recovery and repair.

Relaxing the ban on doping promotes both the “balance of excellences” and the “balance of values” of sport.

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

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1 Comment on this post

  1. In the spirit of a balanced approach I agree that allowing some hitherto banned substances might be beneficial to athletes and to sport generally. The difficulty might be in agreeing exactly what kinds of natural excellence a specific sport is supposed to demonstrate.

    For example, it is possible to take issue with Savulescu’s example of EPO and cycling. The 50% haematocrit limit was initially introduced into cycling beause EPO was undetectable, and riders were excluded for ‘health reasons’ if they exceeded this. We might ask what kind of excellence is a competition such as Le Tour supposed to showcase? The view of many would be: the ability to recover day after day from extreme physical punishment. This is the hallmark of the top stage racers; it is not the only one, but one of the most significant. If all were able to recover from the day’s exertions by restoring their hematocrit level back to 50%, then we would have a different sport, or at least one that had shifted in its values and the excellences it required for success.

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