Aristotle taught us that tragedy requires that someone prominent falls from lofty heights. And, it is the sudden and abrupt plunge of a hero from his pedestal that defines a true misfortune. Lance Armstrong?
I do not know if Lance Armstrong is guilty, but his exceedingly harsh punishment still brings with it a message that applies to us all. In a culture becoming more and more inured to corruption, to illegal practices, to dishonesty and to fraud in almost every area of life, it is high time to make clear a simple truth: actions have consequences.
And maybe like Chelsea Lately, pointed out, Lance Armstrong’s story proves that “steroids” work.
But, I’m not sure if stripping him from his titles is the right course of action.
Elite sport can be extremely harmful. Even clean elite athletes have to accept serious harms to be competitive. Depending on the sport, at elite levels athletes are alwaysat high risk of some sort of accidental injury.
Current dogma is that performance enhancement in sport “illegal”. This dogma is predicated mainly on the view that performance enhancement violates the ‘humanistic’ conception of what sport should be.
The rules of a sport are not God-given, but are there for reasons: they define the nature of a particular display of physical excellence, allow fair competition, protect health, provide a spectacle – and they are enforceable.
The use of drugs to accelerate recovery and to enhance the expression of human ability and will are a part of the spirit of sport.
Under the current code, for example, caffeine is not illegal, even though it can strongly increase performance. In endurance sports, caffeine helps to mobilize the fat stores of an athlete. It can make as much as a 20% difference in the time to exhaustion among competitive athletes. That is a massive difference.
Because doping is illegal, the pressure is on to make performance enhancers undetectable, rather than safe.
But not all the harmful drugs are banned, and a number of banned drugs do not threaten athletes’ health. Is it possible that the sporting bodies are not worried, or not at least primarily worried, about health?
The challenge is to understand the spirit of each sport, and which drugs are consistent with this. But performance-enhancement per se is not against the spirit of sport; it is the spirit of sport. To choose to be better is to be human.
Cheating is bad for sports because a sport is deﬁned by its rules, but eradicating doping is not the only way to eradicate drug cheats. The other way is just to erase the anti-doping rules.
What is ruining sport is cheating. But cheating can be reduced by changing the rules. Cheating can be better reduced by allowing drugs rather than banning them.
There are only two options. We can try to ratchet up the war on doping. But this will fail, as the war on all victimless crimes involving personal advantage have failed (look at the war on alcohol, drugs and prostitution). Or we can regulate the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The use of drugs to accelerate recovery and to enhance the expression of human ability are a part of the spirit of sport. Some drugs, such as the modest use of EPO or growth hormone, can enhance the expression of physical excellence in sport. The challenge is to understand the spirit of each sport, and which drugs are consistent with this. But performance-enhancement per se is not against the spirit of sport; it is the spirit of sport. To choose to be better is to be human.
It would be much easier to eliminate the anti-doping rules than to eliminate doping. The current policy against doping has proved expensive and difﬁcult to police.
Elite sport without performance-enhancing drugs is not safe. It will continue to get less safe as athlete wages go up and they push the limits of human performance.
It is not made signiﬁcantly less safe through the use of existing performance-enhancing drugs, even if everyone uses them. It is inconsistent to crack down on drugs for health reasons when we are indifferent to the serious risks athletes are exposed to all the time.
Rather than attempting to detect undetectable enhancers, we should spend our limited resources on evaluating health and ﬁtness to compete. There are good reasons to allow performance enhancement, to make sport fairer (in the sense that the rules are equally applied) and to narrow the gap between the cheaters and the honest athletes.
It would provide a better spectacle, be safer and less coercive.
The current zero tolerance to drugs fails on the last three grounds. The rules can and should be changed. We can better protect the health of competitors by allowing access to safe performance-enhancement and monitoring their health. We provide a better spectacle if we give up the futile search for undetectable drugs, and focus on measurable issues relevant to the athlete’s health.
We cannot prevent sport from evolving, but we can and should begin to direct its evolution for the better.
Live and Learn. We All Do.
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