To dope or not to dope? That is the question


Maria Sharapova. Lance Armstrong. Ben Johnson. Justin Gatlin. Asafa Powell. Five world-class athletes who have been banned from their sports for using illegal strategies to enhance their performance.

We do not hesitate to condemn them for cheating, and rightly so – they have broken the rules. But are these rules valid? Should certain performance-enhancing strategies be legalised?

68 – the number of Russian Track and Field athletes banned from competing at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio

The majority of athletes, ambassadors for, and fans of sport would respond with an unequivocal ‘no’. Many would claim that ‘drugs are against the spirit of sport’. But what does this vague expression actually mean? For some, at the heart of sport is a focus on hard work and training to push the push the boundaries of the human body in a physical competition.

This argument shows a misunderstanding of the way certain Performance-Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) work. Steroids, for example, do not make you significantly stronger or faster by themselves. Instead, the PEDs allow an athlete to train more intensely, and more often, which allows them to make gains that would otherwise be physically impossible, or require far more time. It is therefore imprecise to argue that doping distracts athletes from practising their sport – because many PEDs allow you to do more of it.

Others oppose doping by arguing that ‘it’s the taking part that counts, and not the winning’. If we were to allow sprinters to use steroids, for example, there would be a greater emphasis on winning their races, rather than enjoying the competition.

Such an argument shows a naïve understanding of what sport at the highest level is all about: winning. Have a look at the interview with Lutalo Muhammad following his loss in the Men’s 80kg Taekwondo final at the Rio Olympics last summer. He was devastated at having come within a second of “accomplishing [his] dream” of becoming Olympic champion. “I have to wait four years for another try … I trained so hard I wanted to quit.” Does this sound like a man who was there just to take part? As Vince Lombardi, one of the most successful NFL coaches of all time, puts it: “Winning is everything, It’s the only thing.” Let’s face it, professional sportspeople are motivated by beating their opponents more than by simply taking part.

Moreover, gaining an advantage over one’s opponents – the reason behind some people’s objection to taking PEDs – is the very thing that makes a sportsman successful, at least in terms of winning. Legalising doping would do little, if anything, to exacerbate this tendency.

An unfair advantage is against the spirit of sport. However, what makes doping an unfair advantage at the moment is that some athletes do it and break the rules while others do not. Since some of these athletes don’t get caught, the playing field is not even. If we legalise doping, the unfair nature of the advantage gained from PEDs is removed.

Surely unfair advantages already exist. An athlete from a More Economically Developed Country (MEDC) such as Australia has a much greater chance of winning a gold medal at the Olympics than someone from a Less Economically Developed Country (LEDC) such as Pakistan. In Australia, where the GDP per capita in US dollars is $42,450, one’s family is likely to have enough money to support you while you practise a sport in your youth, by driving you to training, paying your membership fees, and purchasing your kit. Then, upon becoming an adult, the government provides athletes with the funding and coaches necessary to make sport their full-time occupation. In Pakistan, by contrast, where 12 million children are in full-time labour, many do not have the time to train because they are too busy working for meagre pay on little food in conditions where sanitation is poor. Then, even if you do become a professional sportsperson, your local government is unlikely to have the funds to support in you in the pursuit of an Olympic gold medal.

Australia has won 152 to Pakistan’s 3 gold medals, despite its population being more than seven times smaller than Pakistan’s. Did a Pakistani athlete choose to be born in his country? No. So surely the athlete from Australia has an unfair advantage over his Pakistani counterpart. Although two wrongs do not make a right, we place a disproportionate emphasis on the unfair advantage gained by PEDs compared to those that exist because of income inequality.

What does doping do to our health and wellbeing? Some commentators argue that consistent use of PEDs such as steroids are responsible for premature death. Many point to the example of Florence Griffith Joyner, who died of an unexplained epileptic seizure at the age of 38. The women’s 100m world record holder is believed to have used human growth hormone and steroids to a great degree during her athletics career. There are also accounts of PED-consuming wrestlers who pass away from heart attacks before they turn fifty. Sport should be good for our health. No one should feel they have to pose a significant risk of premature death in order to be the best.

No one can say for sure whether PEDs and other methods of enhancing performance are responsible for life-threatening diseases

But the keyword here is ‘significant’. How dangerous are PEDs? The answer is that no one really knows, such is the dearth of research carried out into the effects of doping. We know that hair loss, acne, and severe mood swings are made all the more likely by the use of steroids. But no one can say for sure whether PEDs and other methods of enhancing performance are responsible for life-threatening diseases such as heart, lung, or kidney failure.

Thus the use of PEDs in sport must remain illegal until there is more concrete evidence on the dangers they pose to our health. Sport is already fun, entertaining, and lucrative. Sport does not need PEDs.

However, if the dangers are shown to be low, I think it will be difficult to prolong the ban on their usage. Sport is all about gaining an advantage over one’s competitors and pushing the boundaries of what the human body is physically capable of. If PEDs can help athletes to achieve this without significantly endangering their health, then I do not see why we should forbid them.

What would ‘significantly’ mean? As John Stuart Mill once stated, “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs”. If competent and adult athletes believe that PEDs are a way of pursuing their own good without depriving others of theirs, then we should surely allow them to dope.