Sport’s Doping Problem: A Rational Solution — Allow Drugs

Time: July 13, 1967. Place: Mont Ventoux, southern France. Event: Tour de France. Twenty-nine-year-old British rider Tom Simpson was lying seventh overall when the 13th stage of the race set off from Marseilles. The temperature was well over 40°C (105°F) but Simpson was an experienced competitor, having turned professional 10 years before, and would presumably pace himself. Unexpectedly, he slowed almost to a halt, wobbled and veered to his right. Helpers, sensing his distress, rushed to help as Simpson fell from his cycle (footage of the fall is still viewable at watch?v=e4viqf-qL9I).

From the archive, 14 July 1967: Simpson dies after collapse on Tour

Simpson appeared to lose consciousness as he fell; he never recovered and died. Three tubes were found in Simpson’s pocket, one full of amphetamines, and two empties. The British team’s luggage was searched and more supplies of the pills were found. At the time, the drugs element did not cause the sensation that might be expected today: the death itself was of most concern. In continental Europe, there was substantial and open advocacy of the use of stimulants to alleviate the strain of long-distance cycling. There is little doubt that many of the leading contenders in the 1967 and other tours were taking amphetamines. Seven years before, in a less publicized tragedy, another cyclist, Knut Jensen collapsed during an Olympic race and later died in hospital where amphetamine was found in his system. (His was the second Olympic death after Portuguese marathon runner Francisco Lazaro died from heatstroke in 1912.)

Simpson’s death occasioned soul-searching among Tour organizers. It was not the first time they had considered the use of stimulants. A tentative attempt in the previous year to introduce drug testing was opposed by leading cyclists, including the five-times Tour winner Jacques Anquetil, who told the publication France-Dimanche: “Yes, I dope myself. You would be a fool to imagine that a professional cyclist who rides 235 days a year in all temperatures and conditions can hold up without a stimulant” (see Mignon, 2003). Interestingly, Simpson was not denounced as a cheat at the time; his death opened up a rather different discourse about the perils of drug taking rather than the morality of it.

The case presaged a new era in sport: 2 years later, limited drugs testing was trialed at the Mexico Olympics and, during the 1970s, track and field and other sports introduced penalties for those who fell foul of the new rules. Antidoping policies have since been adopted by every major sport. As a measure of their effectiveness, consider the Tour de France results 52 years after Simpson’s death. The winner of the race Alberto Contador was subsequently banned for 2 years and stripped of his 2010 Tour title for a doping violation. The third placed rider was Lance Armstrong. The lesson is unambiguous: doping control has failed. A more rational approach, one that is more congruent with the reality of sports in the twenty-first century and one that would make sports immeasurably safer is to permit doping. Competitors could then be treated as rational decision-makers, capable of evaluating evidence and making informed choices—rather than internees.

The Fallout from Corporatization
After the Simpson tragedy, cycling’s governing body the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) might have sought a way of distinguishing the illegal recreational substances that have little or no relevance to sport from the performance enhancing materials that were thought to promote athletic performance. They could have accepted that the substances used by athletes were a response to the changing demands of professional sport and sought policies that attempted to safeguard the welfare of competitors without trying to extirpate the use of what later became known as performance enhancing substances. Instead, it continued to lump them together under the rubric of “drugs”—a term that still evokes images of crack-addicted mothers who sell their babies and murderous Medellín cartel dealers operating in a continent of violence.In the decades that followed—particularly after the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles—commercial sponsors increasingly used sports as marketing vehicles, inviting some to coin the term corporatization to describe the hijacking of what was once a wholesome competitive endeavor. So reliant were many sports on the largess from sponsors, that a withdrawal could have been ruinous. Brands such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola paid generously to have their names associated with a pursuit that resonates health, cleanliness, and purity. How would they have reacted if sport allowed “drugs”? When sports governing bodies resolve to clamp down harder on drug users, it is for the benefit of its sponsors more than either the competitors or the fans. Antidoping policy is expensive, ineffectual, unproductive, futile, and a denial of the athletes’ freedoms. Athletes from across the spectrum have made their intentions signally clear: they will continue to defy the most stringent tests and stay ahead of the curve, always leaving testers lagging in their quest to eliminate doping. A sensible response and one that would render sport safer and consistent with competition today is: to remove the banned substances list and allow athletes to make informed and intelligent choices as to whether or not they wish to take performance-enhancing substances. After all, sport practically incites competitors; let me explain.Typically, athletes use dope not to cheat but to remain competitive. Andrea Petróczi and Eugene Aidman submit: “Athletes today are expected and encouraged to seek every possible way to improve their performance, including specialized training, hi-tech design of equipment and apparel, scientific and medical support, including the use of nutritional supplements” (Petróczi & Aidman, 2008: pp 2).Petróczi and Aidman’s research moves beyond this, however. Among the reasons cited for taking performance-enhancing drugs (not recreational) are: perceived external pressure, suspicion that rivals are using something, painkilling, meeting the physical demands of training. Most competitors would prefer to compete drug-free; many are still prepared to use drugs, provided the substance is undetectable. Some do not see drugs in sport as being a problem and accept that drugs are part of their training regime. Petróczi and Aidman conclude that athletes typically agonize over whether to dope, trying to anticipate what their rivals will do. Their findings find support from the Olympic discus thrower Werner Reiterer, who, in his (2000) autobiography, reflects on how he found himself caught on the horns of the same dilemma: “The minority of athletes who are natural are at a disadvantage,” Reiterer believes. “You must adapt to an environment as it is, not as you think it should be.” His adaptation was to use.

The framework proposed by Petróczi and Aidman makes this type of adaptation intelligible. “Doping practices grow out of habitual engagement in a range of acceptable performance enhancement (PE) practices, such as physiotherapy, advanced nutrition, training techniques, specialized equipment and apparel” ( Petróczi & Aidman, 2008: pp 3). They also happen in a particular kind of environment in which there are effective, pharmaceutically produced drugs that are easily available and in which people habitually use “drugs to assist with aspects of life.” They presumably have in mind drugs that work on the body’s neurotransmission system: the most widely prescribed antidepressant is fluoxetine, better known by its commercial name Prozac. The ethos of organized sport is also part of the environment and, when Petróczi and Aidman point out, “the aim is winning, being the best or setting/breaking a record,” they might also add: making money and becoming a celebrity.

The Dilemmas of Rational Calculators
Petróczi and Aidman’s research alerts us to the culture and mentality of competitors, who strive to achieve and habitually face the decision about whether to engage in “functional drug use,” which “refers to a strategic use of substance to achieve a set goal (i.e. to improve a function or skill)” (Petróczi & Aidman, 2008: pp 6). As such, functional use should not be confused with “experimental, recreational, or dependent use (abuse/addiction).” Petróczi and Aidman’s approach highlights the “vulnerability” of athletes as they progress through a sports life-cycle: at various stages, they make key choices, commitments about goals, investments in training and comparisons, asking themselves questions such as, “have you got what you hoped for?” “has the plan worked?” and “what is next?” At every stage, influences from coaches, friends, fans, and perhaps the media shape decision-making. Remember the background: a highly competitive and possibly remunerative, win-oriented culture in which supplements and pharmaceuticals are habitually used. Not even the most stringent antidrugs policy can remove this.Research by Peter Strelan and Robert J. Boeckmann is also predicated on the assumption that competitors, like most humans, are “rational calculators who, with the benefit of time and reflection, make decisions designed to be of net benefit to themselves. Most athletes’ decisions to use banned substances are presumably rational” (Strelan & Boeckmann, 2006: pp 2912)Strelan and Boeckmann found that half of athletes in their study indicated there was some likelihood that they would use a performance-enhancing drug for rehabilitation purposes” (Strelan & Boeckmann, 2006: pp 2923). Their commitment was so strong that they believed using a banned substance was a “viable response to a career-threatening situation.” Viable is an interesting choice of word: it suggests that the response was regarded as workable, a feasible way out of a tough predicament.So what are athletes thinking when they make their decisions? Moral beliefs and health concerns, according to Strelan and Boeckmann. The deterrent effect of legal sanctions and the disgrace involved is not nearly so effective as WADA and sports governing organizations apparently assume. The proliferating number of undetectable or designer drugs means that laws against drugs are impossible to fully implement and “unenforceable laws are less able to convey the moral or social threats required to inhibit behavior” (Strelan & Boeckmann, 2006: pp 2926).But, if competitors are “most likely to be deterred by their moral beliefs,” as Strelan and Boeckmann contend, where do those moral beliefs come from? Conceptions of rightness and wrongness are variable: they change over time and through space. Strelan and Boeckmann answer: “The ban on performance-enhancing drugs in sport reflects society’s view that performance-enhancing drug use in sport is both morally wrong and potentially harmful to the individual” (Strelan & Boeckmann, 2006: pp 2925).But, this is easily changed: if the laws against drug use did not exist, then athletes would know they could use performance-enhancers with impunity and would not believe they were engaging in an act that violated morality.

While the governing bodies continue to outlaw pharmaceutically produced substances, athletes are forced to engage in clandestine arrangements, procuring “doping agents” from unknown sources and taking them in amounts and for periods that may prove detrimental to their health. A morally honest policy would permit doping, but invite athletes to disclose whatever substances they have used. Sports organizations could then commission research and advise athletes on what is most effective and in what quantities and at what intervals it can safely be ingested. Remember: antidoping policies were initially designed to protect the health of athletes.

The Protean Concept of Fair Play
There are no moral absolutes in sport. Definitions of cheating and fair play are protean: they change perpetually. Today’s athletes use air-inflated soles on their spikes, rather than flats; they run on fast artificial surfaces, not cinders; they wear aerodynamic body suits rather than baggy shirts. And, of course, they train; this would have been tantamount to cheating in the early nineteenth century. Polyurethane swimwear was fair, at least until 2009 when Fina (Fédération Internationale de Natation), aquatic sports’ governing federation, declared it unfair and illegal.Even today, there are mystifying contradictions. For example, in December 2013, the football player Jan Vertonghen, then playing for London’s Tottenham Hotspur, used a legal technique, known as PRP (platelet-rich plasma): a sample of his blood was taken to remove the platelets—the cells that assist the healing process–and then injected them back into his injured ankle (Hirst, 2013). Tiger Woods and Rafa Nadal have also used this “blood spinning” technique. But the injection of their own oxygenated blood into athletes before an event, a process known as blood doping, is a punishable violation. There appears to be little consistency.We contentedly allow, even recommend some types of aids to today’s athletes, yet instantly condemn those athletes if traces of a banned substance are detected. Yet the inconsistencies multiply. If an Olympic archer uses contact lenses to assist his or her performance, we let it pass. If he or she takes a beta-blocker to steady their nerves, we suspend them. The hypocrisy of track and field, in particular, is apparent every season when athletes are given huge cash incentives to break records or remain unbeaten on the Diamond League circuit, yet denied the right to maximize their athletic effort. The kind of “dope” favored by athletes is not some sort of magic elixir: it merely enables them to train harder and for longer and so become more adept at a discipline.Doping of some kind has been commonplace since the inaugural Olympics of 776 BC. “While the violation of Olympic rules was dealt with harshly in the ancient games, it does not appear that the use of drugs and other substances to improve athletic performance was considered cheating,” write Yesalis and Bahrke (2002: pp 43). It was probably going on during the early twentieth century, an age about which many rhapsodize. But the chariots of fire have long since bolted. The joy of competing for competition’s sake has ceded place to a winner-takes-all mentality, cultivated by professionalism. This has been made possible by corporate sponsorship on a scale that makes the World Bank envious. One of the reasons corporate sponsors turned to sport from the mid-1980s was because rock stars and movie actors were too prone to embarrassing transgressions. That must be a question that weighs heavily on the minds of sport’s administrators. Somehow, they must persuade sponsors and the public that the pharmaceutical materials typically taken by athletes are not drugs, at least not in the way they are popularly conceived.1The alternative is to persist in the self-defeating search for ever more sophisticated and comprehensive tests to detect substances that probably do not even have a name at the moment. Already, the costs of detection are punishingly high. There will come a point at which the kind of surveillance and inspection required to monitor athletes will be just too expensive; the corporations will have to be persuaded that radical change is the only way forward.This provides little comfort to idealists who still hark after the amateur ideals. They may abominate the prospect of their children aspiring to achieve in a profession in which doping is extensive. I sense that parents today are no longer dissuading their kids from going into sport. The lure of lucre has made it appear to be a feasible and rewarding career. Would they think twice if they anticipated their offspring would soon be using performance enhancers, if only to remain competitive in an environment in which athletes have carte blanche?

My feeling is that it would not make any difference. After all, the only reason we regard performance enhancement as dirty is because we have rarely been encouraged to question the present policies. Many of the products on the banned list are available over the counter and most are accessible with a prescription. They are no dirtier than the kind of products the nation is habituated to taking every day. Those parents who insist they would not, need to remind themselves that the future they deplore is actually already with us. Sanctimoniously denying it by claiming, “we are winning the war on drugs” remains a deception. This is no policy of surrender, only an acknowledgement that, like every other feature of culture, sport changes and develops.

  • (2013) Tottenham to use controversial blood-spinning technique to speed Jan Vertonghen return. Independent (UK) December 11. Retrieved February 26, 2014, from
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  • , & (2006) Why drug testing in elite sport does not work: Perceptual deterrence theory and the role of personal moral beliefs. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36(12), 29092934.
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1Editor’s note. There have been and are many definitions of “drugs” throughout history; religious (sacramental substances), social (recreational drugs), medicinal (consensualized medicines for treating and/or preventing consensualized conditions or diseases), legal (“dangerous drugs”), economic (commodities), political (“War on Drugs”), and scientific-pharmacological (any active chemical which effects the functioning or structure of a living organism) amongst others. Each is based on its own criteria, used by their stakeholders with targeted populations, for specific agendas and goals and with particular implications and consequences.

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