More Thoughts On Doping

One of my favourite books of introductory economics is Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics. I don’t agree with his latest column, though: Say It Ain’t So. In it, he comes out hard against the MLB dopers recently named—and against doping in sport.

My recent column, Let’s Rethink Doping, was not a defense of those sportsmen, as some emailers have assumed. I believe in the sanctity of contracts. When a sportsman signs a contract with a particular body, he is clearly cheating if he doesn’t abide by the rules of the contract. If the rules say no doping, and he dopes, he’s a cheat. But my basis for that statement is the contract he has reneged upon, and nothing beyond that.

In my column I tried to question whether the rules on doping that most sports have are practical. Those rules might have seemed sensible when they were first framed, but I believe they need to be re-examined, because the context has changed. I covered some of my reasons for believing that in my piece, but the 800 words I was limited to didn’t allow me to touch a few bases. Let me do so now.

A few readers have written in protesting that doping should be banned because of the dangerous side effects some drugs have. This is a common refrain, so let me respond with two points:

One, modern doping has become less dangerous than the primitive steroids of the 1980s. Gene doping, once it is mastered, might have no side effects whatsoever. If medical reasons are the sole reasons for banning performance-enhancing drugs, then the debate might soon be moot. Indeed, given how science develops, medical reasons are bound to lose their validity. What then?

Two, even if we were to assume that medical science comes to a standstill, or regresses (!), and doping has serious side effects, should that not be a choice left to the individual? Outside of sport, I’d hold that what I do to my body, as long as I am an adult, is my business alone. Why should I have to cede that right when I become a sportsman?

The eminently sensible argument can be made here that all sportsmen will then be forced to dope because some do, and therefore the organising body of every sport has a responsibility to keep it clean. In an ideal world, I’d agree with that sentiment. But banning doping doesn’t take doping out of sport—it merely takes it underground. In a sport that makes the kind of demands on the body that cycling does, for example, there is clearly a vast amount of hidden doping that goes on that cannot be detected by testing. Just look at the number of top names involved in Operación Puerto, for example. A young cyclist who comes into the sport is likely to find that he cannot possible excel in it without joining the dopers.

If doping is illegal, your average young athlete who feels the need to dope will do so in seedy, hidden clinics, away from the protection that his sport’s administrators could provide if it was legit. That’s the real world, and banning doping doesn’t make those seedy clinics go poof and vanish. Also, if it was legit, you’d have better institutions and scientists doing more sophisticated research into doping, benefiting everybody, and making the whole process much safer for the sportsmen involved.

It is also untrue that doping will take the charm out of sports by producing beefed-up androids. Take cricket, for example. If doping had been allowed in cricket in this decade, my contention is that exactly the same players would have dominated it. The best bowlers would still be Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Glenn McGrath, because it is their remarkable skills that set them apart. Only they’d have more stamina, would recover from injury faster, and because they’d tire less easily, would bowl fewer bad balls.

That would make life more challenging for the batsmen—who wouldn’t be hulks out of WWF, but talented sportsmen who spent thousands of hours in the nets getting that elbow just such. Ricky Ponting, Rahul Dravid and Brian Lara would still be your best batsmen, for the same reasons that they were the best without dope: a combination of their skills and their character. If they chose to dope—and in a skill-based sport like cricket there is less reason to—it would help them last longer on the crease and hit the ball a little harder on the rare occasions when they chose to slog, which the best batsmen rarely do.

The sports that would be affected most would be the ones that place a premium on strength or stamina. So sure, your 100m sprinters and your weight-lifters would benefit hugely—if they don’t already—and records might tumble. But then, sportsmen in those sports already do a lot of perfectly legal performance enhancement. They can take creatine but not growth hormone. They can do altitude training to boost their count of red blood cells, but not take EPO. What is the sense behind such arbitrary distinctions?*

Back to Sowell’s piece. His main grouse was that “many young people will imitate their sports heroes—and pay the price.” Well, I think we need to re-examine if their sporting heroes are really doing something so wrong (apart from the obvious violation of their contract, which I do not condone). If not, then why not let the “young people”, who can presumably think for themselves anyway, follow in their footsteps?

(Link to Sowell’s piece via email from Jim O’Neil.)

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Update: *My question about arbitrary distinctions is not a rhetorical one. If you oppose doping in sport, you need to be able to define doping to begin with, and answering this question is necessary for that.