People get into a rage about ‘roid usage, but the arguments against performance enhancing drugs don’t stand up to scrutiny.
The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro were rocked by the Russian “doping” scandal; the revelations that many Russian athletes had been taking performance enhancing drugs resulted in 111 of those athletes being banned from the games, and the entire Russian team being banned from the 2016 Paralympics. Athletes should be expected to follow the agreed upon rules, and so the International Olympic Committee were perfectly right to enforce them. But we need to ask ourselves why we have such rules in the first place. In a spirit akin to “innocent until proven guilty”, practices shouldn’t be banned unless we can think of a good reason to ban them. Most people think there are good arguments for banning performance enhancing drugs, but those arguments start to fall apart when you examine them closely.
Using performance enhancing drugs is often characterised as “cheating” because it can give some athletes an unfair advantage over others. Of course, fairness in sports means everyone must follow the same rules, so taking such drugs does constitute cheating if the rules forbid it, but this problem doesn’t arise if everyone is allowed to take them. Granted, athletes from wealthier countries may have access to superior drug research and funding, but how is this any different from athletes in wealthier countries having access to better healthcare, training facilities, nutrition, equipment, and supplements? Even if you attempted to level the playing field by imposing some kind of spending limit on athletes, athletes from richer countries would still benefit from their home country’s higher standard of living. Complete egalitarian “fairness” amongst athletes is a quixotic goal, and banning performance enhancers definitely won’t achieve it.
Great concern has also been expressed about the safety of performance enhancing drugs. Some believe that these drugs should be banned in order to prevent athletes from causing themselves serious injury or death. It’s true that many performance enhancers have severe side effects and can cause serious harm if misused; the US Anti-Doping Agency provides a long and rather frightening webpage detailing the many risks of using these drugs. However, those who fret about the risks of these drugs to athletes seem to forget about another major health risk that every athlete faces: competitive sport. Simply being an athlete is a severe risk to your health; many athletes experience serious injuries (sometimes permanent) and some even risk death. If you’re going to ban performance enhancing drugs for the sake of health and safety, why not ban competitive sports altogether?
Athletes are responsible adults who tend to be highly informed about human health and wellbeing, and they’re certainly not strangers to the careful calculation of risk. If we can trust them to evaluate the risks of high-diving, weightlifting and martial arts, why can’t we trust them to evaluate the risks of drug-use? Athletes need to be taught how to use performance enhancers responsibly and mitigate the risks; this can only happen if drug usage is out in the open. Just like prohibitions on recreational drugs, the ban on performance enhancers pushes their usage underground, preventing education and oversight, and making it more likely that those who use them will suffer ill effects. Bringing them out in the open could actually reduce the risk of death and serious harm.
Those who accept that the use of performance enhancing drugs is not especially unfair or unsafe, often still object to them on the grounds that they “take the magic” out of competitive sport. People want to see athletes succeed through effort and effort alone; sporting success obtained via drug usage can seem fraudulent and pointless. But this attitude posits a false dichotomy between “effort” and “drugs”; no athlete succeeds entirely through effort; most athletes have some kind of natural talent or physical advantage. We must also be careful not to overestimate the effects of these drugs; pumping the average person on the street full of steroids is never going to turn them into Mo Farah or Michael Phelps. Even with performance enhancers, being an Olympian still requires a huge amount of skill, practice and determination.
The debate around performance enhancing drugs needs to be much more nuanced. Despite the popular consensus that “doping” is dopey, the utter flimsiness of the arguments for banning the practice demands a more nuanced discussion. We need to change our perceptions. We should think of these drugs in the same way we think of diet, training and supplements: as something that can contribute to an athlete’s success but doesn’t diminish the importance of their effort. There are many ways for an athlete to enhance their performance, and singling out performance enhancing drugs as an illegitimate means is wholly arbitrary. We should be welcoming of any technology that athletes can use safely and responsibly to improve their performance, and that includes drugs.