Let’s Rethink Doping

This is the 45th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,” George Orwell once wrote. There seems to be plenty of recent evidence to back that up. Former US senator George Mitchell recently released a report on performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball (MLB) that revealed that 78 past and current players had used banned substances. Last week, Marion Jones was stripped of the five medals she won in the 2000 Olympics, following a confession that she had taken steroids at the time. Earlier this year, the Tour de France was beset by controversy, with Michael Rasmussen withdrawn by his team while he was leading the race on allegations of doping, and pre-race favourite Alexander Vinokourov busted for an illegal blood transfusion.

You could look at the glass half empty and bemoan the fact that doping seems to be so widespread in sport. You could look at it half full and feel glad that the cheats are finally being caught. I believe that we’re looking at the wrong glass.

In my view, doping in sport will be an issue no one bothers about in a couple of decades time.

There are two reasons why I believe this. One, it will soon become impossible to catch dopers. Indeed, despite these recent busts, they are already ahead of the curve. Two, using performance-enhancing drugs will no longer seem an ethical problem. Indeed, we’ll wonder what the fuss was all about, and why we ever went around quoting Orwell on fair play.

Before you berate me for my heresy, let me explain.

At a practical level, the science of catching dopers hasn’t kept pace with the science of doping. Consider the recent controversies. Jones wasn’t caught in testing—her guilt was uncovered by investigative work done on the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, an American company that administered sophisticated performance-enhancing treatment to an array of sporting stars. These included Jones and various MLB and National Football League stars, most of whom never actually tested positive.

Another huge doping scandal of recent times was Operación Puerto, which revolved around a doctor named Eufemiano Fuentes, who ran systematic doping services for some of the biggest names in cycling, as well as for a few tennis and football players. Most of these men never tested positive in competition either, and would not have been caught if the good doctor hadn’t been busted.

These controversies demonstrate that dopers are more sophisticated than those set to catch dopers, and only the unlucky actually get caught in testing. I see every reason that this will remain the case—after all, with the kind of money available for sportspeople at the highest level of the game, all the incentives are aligned that way. Indeed, in some sports such as cycling, not doping may well be an entry barrier at the highest levels of the sport.

Also, doping is fast progressing beyond designer steroids and suchlike. In the July 2004 cover story of Scientific American, H Lee Sweeney described the next frontier of performance enhancement in sport—gene doping. Gene therapies that are now at the cutting-edge of medicine, Sweeney wrote, could be used by sportspeople to enhance their strength or stamina —and, crucially, would be undetectable by blood or urine testing.

And now to ethics. The main ethical argument against doping is that it distorts the level playing field that sportsmen begin with. But does that level playing field exist in the first place?

Most top sportsmen, especially in sports that place a premium on strength or endurance, are born with biological qualities that normal people don’t possess. For example, Lance Armstrong’s heart is one-third larger than normal, and his aerobic capacity twice that of the average person. It gives him an advantage over a cyclist with a normal body, which hardly makes for a level playing field. That’s the story in almost every sport.

Here’s my question: if the accident of birth gives some of us certain biological advantages, is it wrong to recreate some of those same advantages using science? Why leave to chance what science can replicate?

In fact, don’t we already do this? We take protein supplements to enhance our muscles and do altitude training to increase our count of red blood cells—then why is it ethically wrong to achieve the same ends using other means? Indeed, wouldn’t taking performance-enhancing treatment actually level the playing field in terms of physical endowments, and allow more scope for a player’s skill and character to express themselves?

One of the great triumphs of our species has come from using science to enhance the quality of our lives— average lifespans rose by about 30 years in the 20th century in most developing countries. This did not affect our humanity, but gave it greater scope to express itself. Why should it be any different in sport?

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Update (December 22): I’ve responded to some of the arguments raised against this column in my post, More Thoughts On Doping.

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I’d written a more comprehensive piece on this subject three years ago, in my pre-India Uncut days: Towards a posthuman sport, or a better world? The last para there sums up how I still feel on the subject.

You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.