Let’s Let Athletes Dope

One salient subject for debates over human enhancement is the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport. Performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) have captured public interest thanks to scandals involving high-profile athletes like Marion Jones, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Lance Armstrong. Amateur and professional sporting bodies now widely condemn PEDs as antithetical to the spirit of sport, and adopted stricter penalties and more intensive testing for PEDs.

By PEDs, I mean a particular kind of performance enhancing technology that extends performance beyond the athlete’s biological or genetic potential. Examples include anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, and erythropoietin. Is prohibition the right approach with PEDs? Those sympathetic to human enhancement generally answer “no.” Current prohibitions on PEDs are costly, encourage cheating and make athletes less safe. Furthermore, the pro-enhancement position sees technologies that enhance human performance as in keeping with the spirit of sport, not opposed to it. Let’s consider some of these reasons in turn.

The first is the cost of anti-doping to athletes. In particular, out-of-competition testing has become more intensive and intrusive for athletes. Professional and amateur sports now require athletes to advise sporting authorities of their whereabouts and submit to both scheduled and random tests. In order to use many medicines as simple as an asthma inhaler, athletes require a “therapeutic use exemption,” which requires a lengthy and burdensome application. New testing regimes impose significant costs on athletes in the form of stress, coordinating compliance, and invasion of privacy. Sanctions for elite amateur sports include two-year, four-year, and even lifetime bans on athletes for doping violations. These sanctions for their part harm fans by removing often popular and successful athletes from competition.

The second reason is that prohibition of PEDs encourages cheating, particularly among lower-ranked athletes. First, the cost/benefit calculus of using illegal drugs for lower-ranked athletes looks very different than those of top athletes, who have far more to lose from being caught. Lower-ranked athletes not only benefit more from PEDs, but their performance gains are also less likely to raise eyebrows. Not only are weaker athletes more likely to use PEDs, but as Richard Posner notes, but the relative gains from using PEDs increase as more athletes are deterred from using them. And finally, a prohibitionist approach locks sport into an unwinnable arms race as athletes and coaches seek ever stealthier performance enhancers, while anti-doping authorities impose ever newer tests to detect doping.

One element of sport guaranteed to suffer from this arms race is the third reason for permitting PEDs– athletes’ health. A prohibition on PEDs prioritizes stealth over safety both in the development and use of PEDs. Doping strategies that minimize detection tend to be dangerous as well, such as oral ingestion of anabolic steroids. The so-called “iron law of prohibition” suggests that the potency of PEDs will rise as prohibition increases, making their consumption more dangerous. Prohibition results in the emergence of risky and unsafe black markets, which lack access to legal means of quality assurance, and prohibition forecloses the medically supervised use of PEDs. These dangers are consequences of prohibition—not the drugs themselves—and would be eliminated through legal, regulated use.

Finally, the use of PEDs is in keeping with the spirit of sport. Many critics of PEDs such as Michael Sandel, and even Posner, conceive of sport as appreciation of “the gifted character of human powers and achievements,” or “a test of biological potential.” But as Julian Savulescu explains, this is not the only possible conception, or even the most desirable conception of sport:

“Human are not horses or dogs. We make choices and exercise our judgment. We choose what kind of training to use and how to run our race. We can display courage, determination, and wisdom. We are not flogged by a jockey on our back but drive ourselves. It is judgment that competitors exercise when they choose diet, training, and whether to take drugs. We can choose what kind of competitor to be, not just through training, but through biological manipulation. Human sport is different from animal sport because it is creative. Far from being against the spirit of sport, biological manipulation embodies the human spirit—the capacity to improve ourselves on the basis of reason and judgment. When we exercise our reason, we do what only humans do.”

On Savulescu’s conception of sport, treating biological and genetic limitations as a red line for performance enhancement is arbitrary and unfair. Instead, PEDs are consistent with other forms of technological enhancement that push human performance beyond previous capabilities. It regards our “natural” potential as inseparable from our “artificial” potential because human beings are by nature creatures that transform themselves and their world through artifice.

To bolster the case for this alternate conception of sport, consider the charge that a conception of sport that prioritizes genetic “giftedness” is profoundly unfair. Why should athletes who have won the genetic lottery have a leg up on everyone else? If David Epstein is correct that elite athletic performance has an important genetic component, can we really blame genetically unlucky athletes for trying to level the playing field? The pro-enhancement position doesn’t think so. Instead, they’re inclined to regard efforts to overcome genetic shortcomings as praiseworthy, and part of the larger goal of expanding the envelope of human achievement.

Those in favor of human enhancement have a powerful case for permitting the use of PEDs. Beyond the problems of cheating, a self-defeating arms race, and the danger to athletes’ health, those in favor of human enhancement can rightfully claim a superior conception of sport than prohibitionists. The pro-enhancement position claims that no one has the last word in the progress of human performance. Instead, they see the development of performance enhancing technologies as a good to be encouraged, consistent with the safety of athletes and open competition. Sport should not shirk from performance enhancing drugs—it should embrace them.