So the Olympics has seen more than a few positive drug tests, not to mention positive covid tests as if the athlete’s didn’t have enough to worry about (you do have to feel for these athletes, they are essentially prisoners within the Olympic village). But it raises the question, why is doping banned, and should that continue?
Firstly doping is not new, even in ancient Greece athletes weren’t against taking a few liberties. There’s also the famous case in the 1904 marathon where the winner was given an injection of strychnine as he struggled to finish (and if you think that counts as cheating, the original winner was disqualified for hitching a lift in a car for much of the route).
The logic behind banning doping is that it takes away from the athletic performance. Athletes were expected to be amateurs. They were supposed to compete unsupported, else it becomes a competition between doctors, trainers and sports scientists. And to give you an idea of how seriously this was taken, in the 1913 tour de France one rider broke the front forks of his bike. The race officials won’t allow him to get a new bike, he had to find a village forge and repair it – himself. He was required to weld the forks back together with his own hands. However, because he allowed a local boy to work the bellows in the forge, he was given a 10 minute time penalty.
Contrast that with sports these days. Now there are few if any amateur athletes at major sporting competitions. Athletes receive a significant level of funding (private sponsorship or government funding) and lots of support, ranging from custom made equipment, support technicians, personal trainers (one climber said she had a trainer for her fingers and another for her arms!), sports doctors, sports scientists, dietitians, physio’s, computer analysis to improve performance, etc.
And these measures come with a significant advantage. Indeed, it would be very hard for an amateur to compete, given they’d lack the same level of support. Plus an amateur won’t be able to cover the costs associated with all of the above. Often times the main reason for a professional athlete retiring is because they’ve lost their funding and can’t afford to pay all of these bills out of their own pocket.
By way of example, there’s controversy with a new type of supershoe at the Olympics, which significantly improves performance (by about 2-3%). In cycling bikes have gotten so advanced, in 1997 they briefly looked at splitting the hour record into two categories, one for traditional bikes (using a similar bike to the one used by Edie Merckx in 1972) and a 2nd one for more modern bikes . While this ruling was reversed in 2014, the difference between the two sets of records is about 10% (which is within the ball park for the benefits you’d get from doping).
The other factor is of course the risks associated with doping. It introduces both short term risks (heart attacks, strokes, exhaustion, etc.), as happened to Tom Simpson, who died in during the 1967 Tour de France on a mountain stage (due to amphetamines and heat stroke). As well as the longer term health risks, which can include cancer, mental health issues, liver damage and, some what ironically, reduced athletic performance over time (as they leave an athlete more susceptible to injuries that end their career).
That said, these risks have to be put in context. Many of performance enhancing drugs were originally developed for medical use and suffice to say we wouldn’t be using them if they were unsafe (I mean they give the same stuff to kids and old granny’s!). The exact level of risk is a matter of debate (in part because we don’t exactly know how many athletes dope, making it hard to correlate the risks), but its generally agreed that the more you take and the longer it goes on, the greater the risks. Of course that would suggest banning doping and driving it underground is part of the problem, as this means you are creating an unregulated free for all.
And there is an ever growing list of banned substances, given that its a game of whack-a-mole between the testers and the dopers. Its gotten to the point where athletes have been banned for taking cold medicine or a dodgy burrito. One of the athletes absent at this year’s games was banned for marijuana (even thought she lives in a US state where’s its legal and only smoked a joint after hearing some bad news about her mother). Many athletes live in fear of inadvertently taking something that yields a positive test. And naturally this means they are heavily dependant on a knowledgeable sports doctor (i.e. the sort of people who can help them dope without getting caught). Plus most of the items on these banned lists are what the rest of us would call “medicine”.
Then there’s the testing process itself. Athletes can be subjected to surprise tests at almost any time. Which pretty much means athletes have to give up their privacy and let testing officials know where they will be 24/7, weeks in advance (if you are an athlete big brother is literally watching you). And, somewhat ironically, given that there’s so much money at stake (if not national pride), if an athlete is doping, elaborate measures will be taken to hide this. So much so that doping controls are unlikely to detect it. Its worth noting how many of the recent scandals (such as Lance Armstrong or the Russian doping scandal) were not detected as a result of failed tests, but through detective work, or investigative journalism.
Plus any danger from doping has to be balanced with the dangers of the alternatives to doping. For example, blood doping in cycling largely came about due to the banning of EPO and improved tests for it. However, while EPO is dangerous, blood doping is worse. All it takes is an athlete mixing up their blood with a team mates and you’ve potentially got two dead athletes.
Another tactic is to use altitude chambers to simulate a higher elevation, in order to improve performance when training or sleeping. However, I’d argue that’s fairly dangerous. Firstly altitude sickness is a tricky illness to pick up on. Usually its symptoms give you enough of warning to descent (or exit one of these chambers) but not always. I’ve heard stories of mountaineers who were fine one minute and then keeled over unconscious the next. And keep in mind hypoxia impairs judgement (so you can’t rely on being able to think straight if you succumb to it) and the quicker you go up (such as stepping straight into a faulty chamber set to too high an elevation) the worse the effects and the faster symptoms begin to appear.
More importantly, any mechanical system that relies on a pressure sealed environment is by definition dangerous. You can die inside a confined space like that scarily fast. All it takes is a few grams too little oxygen, (or too much carbon dioxide) and you’re dead. So you’d have to question why are these are allowed, but performance enhancing drugs are not.
My point is I can’t see how you can say that smoking weed in your free time isn’t allowed, nor is taking medicine to cure an illness. But all of these other measures are ok, even thought some of them come with a much higher risk (and offer a much higher improvement in performance). If anything the rules now favour a professional system of well sponsored athletes rather than amateurs. We’ve gone full circle.
To my mind this raises the question as to whether doping should be allowed, but carefully regulated. This would permit some use of performance enhancing drugs, so long as this use is declared and managed by doctors, whose priority is the athlete’s long term health (no licensed doctor is going to risk a six figure salaried job so some athlete can run a half a second faster).
There would still need to be doping controls, but that’s more a matter of an audit to confirm they are only being administered safe doses and prevent the proliferation of unsafe practices. Thus an unexplained positive test, while it would need following up, it doesn’t mean suspending an athlete immediately (innocent until proven guilty, it could just be some other medicine they took). Of course, repeatedly failing tests which show high doses, or evidence which suggests they are using dangerous tactics (such as blood doping) would prompt a ban.
This would also use a form of honour system. For teams with a good reputation for sticking to the rules, it can be more light touch regulation. However, those with a history of heavy doping and unethical practices would be more heavily regulated. On which point, while Russia would be on that list, so to would the US (Lance Armstrong, Tyson Gay, Floyd Landis, Marion Jones, need I go on?).
And this idea of regulation at a team level is particularly important considering what’s coming in the future – genetic doping or genetic engineering. One of the reasons for sport is to inspire kids. Well if they are up against athlete’s with this level of advantage, no amount of dedication and training is going to make up this deficit. Hell at this point you may as well abolish national teams and compete on the basis of pharmaceutical corporations (team USA is replaced by team Monsanto, team GB replaced by team GSK).
And speaking of which, while its probably a bit too late to resurrect the old amateur athlete system, trying to remove the profit motive would help reduce the incentive to cheat (Ben Johnson’s probation required him to go around to schools and tell kids don’t do drugs…while driving a ferrari!). Rather than sponsors buying the athletes a fancy watch or having them do TV ads, how about they pay their college tuition and offer them an internship (or better still a job). That way, they have a post-athlete career mapped out, something that doping would put at risk, thus removing the incentive to cheat (or cave in to pressure from unethical coaches).
But certainly, ignoring the issue isn’t helping. The current system is completely hypocritical. It doesn’t actually make athletes safer, nor does it level the playing field. All it does is punishing those who get caught, for the crime of getting caught.