The ethical case for allowing doping in sports

Everybody dopes.
Everybody dopes.
Image: AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev
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A stunning report from the World Anti-Doping Agency has made a series of allegations against Russian athletes and authorities, including the accusation that a Russian laboratory deliberately destroyed 1,400 blood and urine samples ahead of a visit by inspectors. The report recommends the suspension of all Russian athletes over a period including the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, as well as lifetime bans for five individual athletes and five coaches. It argues that the London Olympics were “sabotaged” not only by the Russian authorities but also by the inaction of the International Association of Athletics Federations.

While this report focuses on Russia, early independent analyses of leaked blood profiles estimated at least one-third of medals in Olympics endurance events between 2001 and 2012 involve doping or raised suspicions of doping. So the problem extends way beyond Russia. Arsene Wenger, manager of the Arsenal Football Club in London, recently claimed that doping was widespread in football, a sport which has so far had few such scandals.

Back in 2012, there was reason to be more confident in officials’ ability to enforce the rules. Speaking ahead of the Olympics, the UK minister for sport and olympics Hugh Robertson weighed in:

“We cannot absolutely guarantee that these will be a drug-free games. But we can guarantee that we have got the very best system possible to try and catch anybody who even thinks of cheating.””

Mr. Robertson may have been correct that it was the best system possible. But today’s report and earlier analyses of leaked blood data show that doping is likely to have nevertheless been widespread, amongst both Russian athletes and those of other nations.

In light of our proven inability to enforce a zero-tolerance approach to sport, we should instead take a pragmatic approach. As a very brief and incomplete overview, I argue that we should allow doping within safe, measurable physiological parameters.

For example, if an athlete’s hematocrit (the percentage of red blood cells in blood) is under, say, 50%, we should not worry about whether she reached that level by altitude training, hypoxic tent use, genetic good luck, or doping. We should focus resources instead on drugs that are unreasonably risky for athletes, or that are against the spirit of the individual sport (by which I mean they substantially remove the human component of a given sport). The doping we allow should be supervised by a medical professional, permitted within prescribed safe ranges, and tested by independent accredited and monitored laboratories. You can read about this in more detail here or throughout this blog in the sport category.

This position remains controversial. But its opponents imagine an El Dorado where sport is mainly clean, and the few athletes who do dope are likely to get their comeuppance. They argue that allowing doping would be unfair to clean athletes who would not be able to compete. They also argue that it would push young athletes into doping.

But we now know that doping is not a rare aberration. It was not rare in the 1990s for cycling, and it is not rare, 20 years later, for athletics.

In fact, our rules are already unfair to those athletes who choose not to dope. It is more unfair now than it would be if we allowed some doping, because clean athletes’ opponents are assumed to be clean unless we hear otherwise.

It is already the case that young athletes are pressured into doping to make the cross over into professional sport. In fact is is more unfair because they sacrifice their time and energies and are told that they will eventually be able to compete “clean” when, again, the evidence says that they will be pushed towards doping.

For years, we have been pretending that the problem was Lance Armstrong, Dwayne Chambers or Marion Jones. Now we are told the problem is not individuals, but a country (Russia). Or an organization, the IAAF.

But even these are not the problem. The problem is human nature. Athletics is humanity pushed to extremes, both physically and mentally. There are enormous prizes for extraordinary physical feats. There are effective means of enhancing performance. At the same time, our anti-doping capabilities are anemic and sporadically enforced.

The rational athlete today knows that it is likely that at least a third of her top-ranked colleagues are doping. She knows that only around 2% of her colleagues test positive. She knows that unless she is at the top of her sport, her sponsorship opportunities will end and therefore her livelihood. Doping is not an irrational choice for the athlete. And it is certainly not an irrational choice for her coach, her team or her national federation, which can withstand the loss of the occasional athlete to two-year bans if their programs continue. They have very little to lose, as there are countless others waiting to take her place.

Moreover, it is unfair to punish individual athletes when we know that doping is systematic within teams and now even within national athletic federations. We know Lance Armstrong cheated. But we also know that retrospective tests revealed that in 1998, only nine samples out of 60 belonging to five riders had a negative results. Two of those were from riders who elsewhere admitted to doping. The vast majority (44) were positive, while others were not testable. We might not admire Armstrong. But we should take no pride in his treatment or the treatment of others like him.

We know that there is systematic bullying and pressure on athletes to conform. Athletes are young and many have sacrificed other forms of career development to focus on their careers. They have little real power.

The report on Russia is stunning, but it is not news to anyone who has followed sports. We need to create an enforceable regime that focuses on what matters: athlete health and the spirit of sport.

Yes, athletes will still try and cheat wherever the line is drawn. But by focusing on measurable physiological parameters, and only using zero tolerance on drugs that are unsafe in any dose, we will have a chance to alter the balance so the rules we do have are enforceable, and it is rational not to cheat. We will also be able to tell athletes, teams and national agencies that these rules really matter.

Does it matter if someone raises her hematocrit by sleeping in a hypoxic air tent or by using erythropoietin if the result is the same? No. But it does matter if the drug she takes causes cancer, or if she is using a motor in her bike. Those are the rules we should care about. Those are the rules we should enforce.