The Olympic Games are one of the world’s most uplifting spectacles. For 16 days, we’ll see something rare: Almost all the world’s nations in agreement, playing the same games by the same rules.
It’s an inspiring, even utopian event. But, increasingly, it’s haunted by an unsettling possibility—that even as athletes from around the world are competing together, they may also be cheating together. At the highest levels of sports, doping is so widespread that, watching the sprinters or swimmers poised on the starting line, it’s hard not to wonder how many have used performance-enhancing drugs. From the Tour de France to the World Series, from the NFL to the NBA, our admiration for the world’s best athletes is increasingly undermined by a single, persistent question: Did they have illegal help, and, if so, how much?
To the people in charge of regulating sports, doping has become a thorny enforcement problem: an arms race between increasingly sophisticated forms of cheating on the one hand, and better detection and punishment on the other. But beneath that, there’s an even thornier philosophical problem: Though pretty much everyone in sports agrees that doping is wrong, there’s little deeper agreement about why. Everyone acknowledges that, according to today’s rules, doping is wrong because it’s cheating. What’s not so obvious is whether doping is inherently wrong—whether there’s something fundamentally unsportsmanlike about using drugs to enhance your performance.
In recent years, a lively intellectual debate has sprung up around the question of how, exactly, doping is wrong—or whether it’s wrong at all. The debate is contentious: The more that scholars and fans have learned about the history and practice of doping, the more elusive that answer has become. There are plenty of popular reasons to argue that drugs and sports are fundamentally incompatible, but in almost every case—whether they’re based on tradition, fairness, or the ideals of health and good character—those arguments are contradicted by some widely accepted element of high-level sports. Some thinkers even raise an unsettling possibility: that our visceral opposition to doping is a defense mechanism that lets us lie to ourselves about what we really love about sports.
This debate might seem purely academic, but the quest for a clear way of thinking about doping matters. Drugs have already reshaped sports, and if one thing is certain, it’s that medicine will advance, bringing new drugs and therapies with it. Athletes and regulators will then have to decide whether each of these new innovations should be allowed or outlawed. To do that, they need to understand in a broad sense what is inherently wrong about doping in the first place—and whether it’s really as incompatible with sports as we often think.
Perhaps the simplest argument against drugs in sports is that they violate the traditional notion of pure, natural athletic competition. (Picture those ancient Olympians, competing in the nude.) Unfortunately, the tradition of natural athletics tends to vanish when you look for it: For most of history, doping wasn’t against the rules at all.
In his new book, “Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The Science of Drugs in Sport,” Chris Cooper, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Essex, shows how recent our antidoping intuitions really are. The ancient Greeks and Romans were entirely open about using drugs; Galen, the great Roman physician, enthusiastically prescribed dried figs, mushrooms, and even animal testicles to the gladiators he supervised. That permissive attitude set the tone for millennia. In 1904, runner (and Cambridge resident) Thomas Hicks won the St. Louis Olympic marathon on a combination of strychnine injections and brandy, and no one seemed to mind; in the 1930s, British soccer teams proudly boasted about the supplements they used, sometimes based on monkey glands. Even after doping was banned at the Olympics in the late 1930s, it still didn’t have a real stigma in professional sports. “The view seemed to be that any way to obtain an edge was fine,” Cooper writes.
In fact, Cooper argues, our modern feelings about doping have less to do with ancient sporting ideals and more to do with society’s turn, in the 1960s, against drug use in general. Back when amphetamines were considered commonplace pick-me-ups, they were largely acceptable in sports, too. A contemporary parallel might be caffeine. It has a demonstrable and substantial effect on athletic performance—“better than amphetamines,” Cooper writes—and yet using caffeine isn’t usually considered doping, almost certainly because, in civilian life, we don’t think of caffeine as a real drug.
At first glance, it might seem that there’s an obvious difference between the legal, organic supplements of the past, like coca leaves, and the often black-market pharmaceutical supplements of the present. But if history doesn’t provide much guidance to antidoping regulators, neither does the notion of what’s legal and natural. Pharmaceutical laws vary widely from country to country, and plenty of legal drugs are considered cheating when taken for sports. The border between natural and unnatural is also frustratingly fuzzy. Even today, in an era that prizes “natural” competition, the truth, critics say, is that elite athletes never really compete naturally. Instead, they’re backed by teams of coaches, doctors, and funders, and trained in what amounts to a laboratory. Organizations like the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, have to grapple with a whole battery of substances, some of which, like testosterone and human growth hormone, occur naturally in the body, but violate the doping rules when injected.
In a larger sense, some thinkers argue that we’re wrong in assuming that there’s any inherent opposition between “natural” athletics and “unnatural” technology. In an influential 2005 article in the European Journal of Sports Science, the prominent Scottish bioethicist Andy Miah argued that technology—including the pharmaceutical kind—can be very much in line with the real spirit of sport, which is “to re-describe and challenge accepted views of what it means to be human.” In our everyday, nonelite athletic lives, he’s pointed out, we recognize that science and technology can make sports more fun and rewarding: That’s why even amateur athletes extend their stamina with caffeinated, amino-acid infused energy gels, and build muscle with nonoutlawed substances like creatine. From that point of view, drugs are more an expression of the spirit of sports than a violation of it. Instead of banning them, we should figure out how to incorporate them constructively, to make sports better.
Another popular argument for the inherent evil of doping, meanwhile, focuses on the virtues of sports: healthfulness, discipline, and hard work. To many people, the idea of doping is unsettling because it’s damaging to those virtues—both to health and to character. Many of the drugs at the center of the doping debate come with side effects; in a similar way, using drugs feels like a form of laziness.
These arguments may make sense when applied to our kids, or to amateur sports, where health and character-building are the primary goals. But they make less sense, some thinkers argue, at the elite level, where the real doping problem exists. Verner Moller, a professor at the Institute of Sport Sciences and Clinical Biomechanics at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, points out that sports themselves are a dire health risk. When an NFL linebacker lowers his head for a tackle, when a Tour de France cyclist hurtles downhill at 60 miles per hour, when a Major League pitcher signs up for reconstructive elbow surgery, or when a 16-year-old gymnast risks injury to perfect a routine, sports is less like a character-building activity and more like gladiatorial combat: a dangerous, self-destructive, even unhinged quest for pure performance.
In fact, Moller says, that’s what we like about it. Our sunny view of elite sports is inaccurate and naive; it derives, he argues, from the fact that “sport has been over-promoted as character-building and as a public and social good.” In a 2009 book, “The Ethics of Doping and Anti-Doping: Redeeming the Soul of Sport,” Moller argued that, despite all the feel-good P.R., the real spirit of elite sport is a Nietzschean one, with athletes pursuing extraordinary performance almost to the point of self-destruction. Like Miah, he sees doping as a natural outgrowth of the fundamental nature of sports. Our moralizing, then, starts to look like a form of denial about what we’re really paying to watch. And in trying to stop doping, he says, we are trying, senselessly, to “save sport from itself.”
The arguments of Miah, Moller, and others have yet to sway sports policy in any significant way: The notion of formally incorporating drugs into sports is a nonstarter in most leagues. But their arguments about sports are serious ones, and suggest that when it comes to drawing the line on drugs, there’s no answer that can command an ethical consensus.
David Howman, WADA’s director general, acknowledges that there are philosophical complexities, and describes real-world doping policy as more like politics than philosophy—a reflection of public will rather than absolute truth. Most people, as WADA’s global surveys have shown, believe that doping is unethical and unsportsmanlike, and this popular belief is what drives policy and enforcement. Ultimately, WADA seeks to create and enforce a set of rules that reflect global norms. The spirit of sport shouldn’t be determined by philosophers, Howman says, or by advertisers, but by the fans.
WADA does take the ethical issue seriously, however, and actually has its own in-house philosophy department to handle the questions that doping raises—a committee called the Ethical Issues Expert Group, which weighs in on particularly complex ethical problems, like the use of hypoxic tents. The committee is chaired by Thomas H. Murray, a distinguished bioethicist who has been writing about drugs and sports for more than 30 years. Murray is respectfully unsympathetic to the arguments in favor of doping. They ignore, he says, a fundamental fact about sports: We value them not just because of absolute performance, but because of the ways that performance is limited.
Some athletes, and some philosophers, may want to put performance at the heart of sports—but many fans, Murray argues, fall in love with a sport because of the limits that it places on an athlete, and because of the creativity and virtuosity that athletes can discover within those limits. By shifting those limits, doping erodes the structure that gives a sport its meaning. In this way, today’s clandestine doping is a special kind of cheating. (Cooper agrees: Secret doping, he says, is “like match-fixing.”) Even if doping were made legal, meaning could still be lost: Old records and new ones won’t be meaningful in the same way.
That might not happen in every sport: Different sports, Murray says, “mean” different things to the people who care about them, and “every particular sport has to reflect on what it means.” “It’s a conversation,” he says, “that needs to happen context by context.” (“I could definitely see a case where someone on the ski-rescue patrol might want to use [the red-blood-cell booster] EPO,” he points out. “We might actually applaud that.”) The real problem with today’s doping, he argues, is that it short-circuits the conversation: It allows a small number of athletes who dope in secret to shift the ground underneath everyone else. “Doping is an effort to secretly change the nature of sport without engaging in a conversation,” he says. “It’s very undemocratic.”
Murray’s argument highlights a basic tension at the heart of the doping debate. On the one hand, rules are what make sports meaningful: In order to love organized sports, you have to love rules. And yet rules aren’t what make sports exciting. Performance is. Normally those two aspects of sports coexist, but doping puts them into direct competition. If Murray had to pick a winner, he says, he’d choose rules: “‘Maximum performance by whatever means’ has never been a widely shared understanding in any sport.” At the moment, though, we are still early in the game.
Joshua Rothman is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at joshua.rothman @gmail.com.