Ethicists unpack the argument for why doping should be kept out of sports

Team Russia was stripped of its 2008 relay gold upon evidence of doping.
Team Russia was stripped of its 2008 relay gold upon evidence of doping.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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Athletes can go to extreme lengths to perfect their skill but, as Russia has discovered, taking drugs to improve performance is widely considered a step too far.

But what makes doping so uniquely shameful and unsportsmanlike when there are so many examples of athletes using other factors to their benefit? Swimsuit design, for example, can have significant impact on a swimmer’s time, and the international governing body for swimming has repeatedly changed its mind about whether to allow the most recent and sophisticated swimwear—a far cry from the outright ban on doping. Or consider an athlete with access to the very best dietician, an advantage that has nothing to do with natural ability on the playing field.

Drew Hyland, philosophy professor at Trinity College in Connecticut, says that as long as drugs are banned, taking them is cheating. But he’s “ambivalent” about whether drugs should be banned. He adds:

“If you’re a cross-country skier and you grew up in Vermont, you have an unfair advantage. Are we going to penalize you? If I’m 6 ‘10” inches tall, I have an unfair advantage in basketball. Are we going to say you can’t have any 6’10” guys playing basketball? Is it possible to draw a non arbitrary line where you say we’re justified in not allowing performance-enhancing drugs, but not other things?”

But others argue that there is a key distinction between drugs and other kinds of advantages. Heather Reid, a philosophy professor at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, points out that the philosopher Bernard Suits defined sports as a “voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” The whole point of sports is that they’re unnecessary and ultimately inefficient activities.

“A swimming race is not just going from one end of the pool to another—you could run along the side,” says Reid. “Really sports are prescribed inefficiency, they’re ways to slow you down.”

Such inefficiencies are the whole point of sports, she adds:

“Why make it more and more difficult and challenging? That’s what brings out the best in us in humans, that’s what requires virtues, or what the ancient Greeks called ‘arete,’ which was this idea of virtue to do with not just your physical prowess but also your spiritual prowess, your courage, your self-discipline, all of the things that made you a good person.”

Doping, on the other hand, is a form of efficiency. “If we’re going to use those kinds of means,” Reid says, then weightlifters “may as well just use a forklift.”

Such discussions aren’t just abstract concerns, but actively guide debates in sport regulatory bodies.

Bioethicist Thomas Murray, who was chair of Ethical Issues Review Panel for the World Anti-Doping Agency for many years, says that doping “short-circuits the connection between talent, dedication, and performance in sport. It takes control and responsibility away from the athlete and gives it to the chemist or gene therapist or whoever’s manipulating the athlete’s body and physiology.”

Allowing doping would likely lead to a pharmaceutical race, with ever more effective drugs changing athletes’ ability. And even if athletes were able to take drugs safely under the supervision of doctors, Murray points out that still-growing teenagers mimicking their idols would face far greater risks.

Some sporting competitions might decide to allow certain drugs, he says, but to allow doping in the Olympics would make it impossible to compete without the help of pharmaceuticals.

“I’m trying to keep a space for athletes to concepts without drugs,” he says. “There will be subtleties and we’ll have to draw lines that are difficult to draw. But to not draw any line would be the end of sport as we know it.”