Doping does not undermine the Olympic Spirit
At 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 CompetitionTagged in: Ben Johnson, Cheating, doping, drugs, Hysen Pulaku, London 2012, Lord Coe, olympics, Sport, steroids, World Anti-Doping Agency
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter