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Enhancement – Keep the Game, Change the Basis

Paradoxically, elite sports is largely about seeking for inequality, but simultaneously trying to level the playing field in order to equalize the opponents. So, how is it possible to cultivate inequality through equality? Anti-doping activists argue that enhancing substances falsify the individual and naturally given capability to perform in a competition. As a result, there might be a lack of equal opportunities. In contrast, enhancement advocates underline that doping might be able to level the playing field by removing the effects of genetic inequality, and therefore provides equality.[1] In fact, both arguments imply the noble aspiration of equality. So then, equality must be the ultimate aim.

As a matter of fact, sport is about the measurement of differences and while participating on an elite level, these differences become more and more tiny or even invisible. However, we refuse to accept more than one winner. Actually, this implies a certain degree of moral inconsequence. On the one hand we aspire toward equality, but on the other hand do not accept equal performances. That may also be the reason why we tend to distinguish identical performances with the aid of modern techniques like digital chronometers which are able to measure differences of a thousandth of a second. Is this fair? Admittedly, that is also a kind of artificial enhancement itself in order to reveal invisible differences. Instead of accusing the athlete of not being fair by abusing performance enhancing substances, we rather have to reconsider the fairness of our rating system. Identical performances should be seen as what they are, namely equal. As long as this “singular winner-orientation”[2] persists, it will not be possible to eliminate artificial performance enhancing methods. Regarding this argumentation, why not legalize doping within a framework of medical surveillance? Effectively, this sort of “pragmatic approach”[3] may solve a plenty of problems. First, it would decrease the athlete’s inaccurate criminalization. Second, less doping controls would provide much more privacy and quality of life for the individual athlete. Third, a certain level of ‘superhuman’ entertainment and spectacle could still be realized. Fourth, and maybe most important, a partial legalization of doping might help in order to make performance enhancing methods even safer. Therefore, doping will not be safe unless it is legal within certain physiological boundaries. In this concern, you cannot improve a method without having references to a wide range of data. In fact, such an effort would provide a necessary official platform for public discussion referring theories, results and experiences according this specific topic. Admittedly, and that is the crux, such concessions would imply systematic and scientific testing on athletes. In contrast to the common genetic testing, this kind of examination would not be based on the evaluation of new methods, drugs or theories. It would simply be an accumulation of data, without active intervention into natural pathways. Concluding, if we are really concerned about an athlete’s health, we should examine him for physiological indicators rather than detecting banned substances. So, a new approach might be to screen athletes in order to be able to disqualify a sportsperson who is at serious risk. That could be because of high blood pressure, abnormal heart size, cardiac rhythm irregularities, pathological serum parameters (e.g. haematocrit or haemoglobin) or abnormal diuresis. Indeed, such an idea may supersede the implementation of a sports law, which is based on a policy of punishment and delinquency. Restrictions based on the ground of medical necessity might result in better social acceptance and enable officials to measure everyone by exactly the same criteria. Furthermore, athletes who have been temporary disqualified because of being at a specific risk would still have the opportunity to return to competition as far as their parameters have normalized. Another positive effect might be the possibility of stricter handling of doping issues, but simultaneously more objective and effective than before. Official decisions no longer have to be justified on spongy legal paragraphs because the basis of such a policy would solely be limited on the medical well-being of the competitor. You might argue whether this is discrimination of human beings who are naturally equipped with altered genes like former Finnish cross-country skier Eero Mäntyranta during the 1960s. But does it actually matter if someone has a higher red-blood-cell count because of genetic reasons? The risk will obviously stay the same, so a disqualification might also be to the benefit of the athlete.

In order to realize such an unconventional idea, there will be at least two issues which have to be considered. First, objective observation cannot be guaranteed if physicians and medical staff are a durable part of the team. In this respect, doctors might be assessed by the amount of players/athletes who are capable in order to compete. This would lead to a medical competition which may be counterproductive. Second, a disclosure of doping practices would mean that every professional sport event has to be labeled with the slogan “do not imitate this at home”. As a matter of fact, performance enhancing practices have already taken their toll. Therefore, the real disgrace of doping takes place in conventional fitness centers rather than in large stadiums. So, the actual victims of doping are not part of WADA’s “Registered Testing Pool”, do not enjoy the luxury of permanent medical supervision and in fact represent a multiple of the tiny elite athlete community.

In reference to our detestation of doping, we might keep in mind the coffee-issue. Ingesting coffee on purpose, for example in order to stay awake in the evening, is enhancement. In contrast, enjoying it because you are a passionate coffee-fancier is just enjoyment. It is quite similar with sports. You can interpret sports and its extraordinary ethos as morally imperative or you can simply enjoy the game.

Please note: these lines represent an excerpt of my essay "Artificial Performance Enhancement in Sports: Elite Athletes – Victims Rather than Delinquents?"

[1] Why we should allow performance enhancing drugs in sport. Savulescu J, Foddy B and Clayton M. Br J Sports Med. 2004 Dec.; 38 (6): pp. 666-670

[2] Dopium fürs Volk? Werte des Sports in Gefahr, Denkperlen 06, Hans Lenk, 2007 by merus verlag Hamburg

[3] Current anti-doping policy: a critical appraisal. Kayser B, Mauron A and Miah A, published 29 march 2007, BMC Medical Ethics 2007, 8:2

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Roman,
    Your idea has appeal, but the problem will be that certain athletes will still try to enhance their performance by any means and will therefore still be tempted to go beyond the legal framework you propose. We will simply have moved the goalposts a little.
    A more radical, if idealistic, approach would be to reject the whole game : what is the sense of proving that you can run/cycle/swim faster/further than others, or watching others strive to do it ? Do these activities really incorporate the noble aspiration of equality, or indeed any other noble aspiration ?
    If we lost the notion of “élite sports”, we might all be happier and healthier …

  2. Anthony: giving up the game won’t do it; you’d have to give up a great deal of activities — indeed all activities that involve competition.

    Is there any reason this might also be the case in the UK or in Europe? I suspect it is the case in some Asian countries, like Korea.

    It’s not only athletes who dope up on performance enhancing drugs. In the USA, it has been reported that students, musicians and military personnel (especially fighter pilots) take such drugs which heighten their responses and reduce their perception of fatigue so a to make them last longer on the job. The result may be snap judgments on the part of military personnel in combat that are harmful (e.g. killing allied ground personnel, as in Afghanistan). Why do they do it? All these activities are competitive in one way or another. Places on good large and small orchestras, quintets, etc. are scarce, but important to the musician. Fighter pilots want to stay fighting, and if they show fatigue they might be grounded. Students … well, you know about that. I suspect you have the same thing going on among managers in large companies and government personnel.

    How does one combat this? As places get more scarce in business and the arts, as finances force greater efficiencies or kill of more musical groups, the temptation to use drugs becomes greater, whatever the cost to the user. Ambition and family needs both push in that direction.

  3. I find the equality element in sports is very recent notion, as is the very idea of a level playing field as such. And I have recently begun to wonder if such a thing is at all desirable: why is it important that everyone have an equal chance at winning? Why is it that some should not have an edge on their rival? I’m not entirely sure that this is something to strive for, which is not a popular notion.

    Interestingly, this infection of sport and competition with the ideal of equality can be visually traced with the changes in the design of the Olympic Games posters. It has been a while since an Olymptic poster has portrayed exceptionalism, superiority or dominance of the winner. The competitors as a big O Olympians. Inclusion, equality and diversity are new themes and in a sense this seems to me to be taking away from the essence of sport as a form of competition and struggle.

    It seems to me that it is this drive for leveling and equality in competition that is the disease of which doping is a symptom. Its a logical consequence: once the categories and groups of athlete are homogenized far enough there is not other alternative than to seek alternatives for remaining competitive. There has to be a winner and yet there cannot be one so long as the pool of competitors is near-equal in ability.

    Although this is the height of conjecture, I’d wager that there would be far less pressure to dope, if no such problem at all, if competition was closer the ancient Olympian style.

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