Doping does not undermine the Olympic Spirit

steroids 300x200 Doping does not undermine the Olympic SpiritAt the end of June, taking part in the National Final of the Debating Matters sixth form competition, I spoke in a debate about whether allowing performance-enhancement drugs would undermine the spirit of sport. But despite having finished my speeches, the issue has remained at the forefront of my mind. Twice, during the opening ceremony of the current Olympics, we were reminded to oppose the use of performance enhancing drugs in sports: first in Lord Coe’s speech, and then in the Athletes’ Oath.

The furore over drug use in professional sport has escalated to monumental proportions in recent times. The World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) inquisitional enthusiasm to prevent any kind of doping has resulted in the institution of one of the most intrusive and inhumane inspection systems ever conceived. Everyone from the Council of Europe to Lord Coe has spent a great deal of energy moralising about the supposedly corrupting effect of enhancement drugs in sport. At the same time, we are told to believe that sport is an exhibition of pure human skill, free from “unnatural” elements which pollute the pure, innocent spirit of the contest.

Anti-doping types have harped on about the idea that the consumption of performance-enhancing substances, such as anabolic steroids and erythropoietin, is not a “natural” means of raising an athlete’s standard. The trouble for Lord Coe, and his co-thinkers, lies in defining the “natural limits” of human performance, and what should be considered “natural” methods of improving one’s physical abilities. What is the difference between high-altitude training, hypoxic air machines, and Erythropoietin? All three offer the same benefit: an increased red blood cell capacity, which allows an athlete to carry more oxygen, thus boosting his or her endurance. Ah, but there is a difference! Taking a trip to Ethiopia to raise one’s PCV (Packed Cell Volume of red blood cells) is fair game, but EPO is a no-no, apparently.

The only way in which drug-taking could be sensibly construed as cheating is if it were a biomedical shortcut, a method of raising an athlete’s performance in competition whilst significantly reducing the amount of training and effort required. One must state it plainly: this is a falsehood. Ben Johnson, the greatest sporting sinner of our time, did not slack off because he took anabolic steroids. The drugs allowed him to raise his performance ceiling, but only if he worked at it. He in fact worked harder to run the 100 metres in 9.79 seconds than he could have without doping. In my opinion he deserves commendation, not criticism.

Doping incidents in professional sport have become so frequent that, when it was revealed that Hysen Pulaku, an Albanian weightlifter, had tested positive for a banned variety of anabolic steroid, there was no widespread shock. The BBC reported that Pulaku was “the first athlete ejected from the Games”, as if he was the first in a lengthy list of transgressors (as he turned out to be). Yet, given anti-doping has never been stricter, why do we seemingly grow more cynical of every new record or outstanding triumph? The answer seems to lie, in part, in the shift from amateurism to professionalism.

In effect, the anti-doping activists are pining for the good old days of amateur sport, the days when a man worked as a doctor on weekdays, but who played international sport on Saturdays. I am too young to remember that supposedly golden age, being born in the year that rugby union followed rugby league in abandoning amateurism. Since 1995 the average international rugby union player has grown by a foot, and his muscle power has increased considerably. In fact, athletics was one of the cheerleaders of professionalisation, passing several amendments to its rules in 1982 in order to permit the practice. Since that time, sport has been transformed. At the top level, it is no longer a game where taking part is more important than winning. Sport is a career, and events such as the Olympics are now businesses.

One of the main arguments for the abandonment of amateurism was that the quality of sport was lower than that which could be achieved by professionals; with an improvement in standards, according to the theory, more people would watch and follow sport. Of the various Olympic mottos, the most resonant today is ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ (Faster, Higher, Stronger).

This being the case, why oppose performance-enhancing drugs? One only has to look at Ye Shiwen, the Chinese swimmer who won gold in the women’s 400m individual medley last week, to imagine how magnificent sport could be with medical enhancement. Without doping, Ye swam the final 50 metres in a time close to that of Ryan Lochtie, the American winner of the equivalent men’s race. Imagine how astonishing a performance Ye could have produced had she taken EPO or anabolic steroids. Professionalism necessitates a drive to raise performances to the highest possible level, and this goal cannot be achieved without a small amount of biomedical assistance. Even going by WADA’s own definition of the ‘Spirit of Sport’, one can confidently say that the legalisation of performance-enhancing drugs will not, in any way, undermine that spirit.

So let us embrace the era of the athletic superman, and assist him or her however we can. Sport will, as a consequence, be vaulted up to a new standard of excellence. This must be our goal.

Douglas Morton is a student at Bearsden Academy, East Dumbartonshire. He has contributed this article as winner of the Best Individual prize at the 2012 National Final of the Institute of Ideas Debating Matters Competition

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  • Tunde Bolaji

    Enthralling piece, from a side of this argument, I’ve never seen, yet alone consiered till today. However, I can’t condone the use of performance-enhancing drugs in any manner. Outside of the health & ethical argmuents, it jades the Olympic objective. Rather than being a spectacle and appreciation of human achievement, it now becomes a sort of ‘biological warfare’ to see which drug can produce the best outcome.

  • William Lilburne

    So my conclusion is that if creatine and intravenous vitamin jabs are health hazards then they should be outlawed as performance-enhancing aids too.

    I am not convinced that training to be a top class athlete is intrinsically life-shortening. Can you site evidence for this? (Wally Haywood who won the 60-mile Comrades Marathon five times and last ran it at the age of 80 went on to live to the age of 97). But even if it is, there is a fundamental difference between risks to health that are intrinsic to training to be a top athlete and ‘add-on’ risks from taking drugs. You can’t avoid the first but you can avoid the second.

  • robertocasiraghi

    I didn’t know there was a pro-doping journalistic lobby. If I was a parent, I would tell my children to keep away from sports AND journalism.

  • BobbyWong

    Still making the doping innuendo against the 16 year old Chinese swimmer, weeks after IOC had cleared her with mandatory drug testing? Why don’t you mention Katie Ledecky, who improved 5 seconds in 4 weeks?

    Ironic your article is about the Olympic Spirit…

  • TerryBarnes

    Struggling to find an academic study, but did find some quotes. Apparently the life expectancy of a US pro footballer is 58. The average lifespan of a pro athlete (any sport) is 67. This was taken from life insurance company averages.

    A life expectancy expert (no cite, sorry) called Dr Roy Walford published some papers suggesting that the calorific intake of athletes – especially endurance ones – led to significantly shortened life expectancy.

    The sport I follow personally is cycling – it’s not at all out of the ordinary to hear of cyclists dying in their 50’s or 60’s. That’s anecdotal obviously and you only hear about the ones that have died as opposed to those still living so whether it’s proof of anything I don’t know.

    What I do know is that fitness and strength are achieved in response to demand and damage. We become stronger by using muscles to the point where they are damaged and get repaired. We increase endurance by stressing the cardiovascular system. Taken to extremes – which you must do to be world class – that intrinsically feels like a bad thing to do for your health.

  • TerryBarnes

    Isn’t it the case though that today the athletes are pawns in a game of ’scientific warfare’ where the best sports scientists with the best facilities win? Performance enhancing drugs are the point at which a line is crossed from a rules perspective, but it’s all part of the same environment.

    Winning isn’t about natural talent, it’s about following the scientifically best training programme. The Australians spent vast sums on training their athletes and they won lots of medals – now we spent lots and the Australians don’t and we win lots of medals.

    It’s still down to effort and commitment from the athletes themselves, but whether they win or not – that’s science.

  • James Lucey

    I suppose the extreme mood swings, liver failure, joint damage and even neurological/brain damage are all a part of the deal as well? You wont see those damaging side effects with protein powder, etc. And does this article really draw a comparison between training at high altitudes and injecting EPO into your bloodstream? Really? Going to Vail to learn to ski because it would make your training more effective, and injecting yourself with an unnatural substance that makes you a better skier are two completely different actions. Comparing running at high altitudes and introducing a chemical into your body is ridiculous. Otherwise, well argued piece, I must disagree though purely from a moral standpoint.

  • JTurves

    If doping became legal, then it would also become more extreme because it would no longer have to be hidden. I fear that athletes would become strange, freakish creatures with all sorts of severe health problems we barely see now.

  • David Bowden

    Bobby – actually the article is very clear that Ye Shiwen was not doping. He was arguing that her performance could’ve beaten her male equivalent with the benefit of doping – an potentially enthralling argument around the possibilities opened up by ‘unnatural’ performance enhancement

  • Phil McDuff

    Clearly there’s going to be variation, and single accounts are not data in a case of something generally being the case.

    We’re all aware of sport specific injuries. It’s regarded as trivially true that high intensity training for gymnastics at a young age creates problems with joints as you get older. And while road running could improve cardiovascular fitness, it’s also likely to cause leg injuries.

    The question is, why are the risks “intrinsic” when the underlying structure of being a top athlete is so fundamentally arbitrary in the first place?

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