01-02-2005, 12:12 AM #1
Just Say Yes to Steroids (Article)
If you thought ballroom dancing in the Olympics was a farce, prepare for a shock: Chess could soon be too. Overseeing more than 5,000 chess competitions worldwide, the International Chess Federation wants chess in future Olympiads. The International Olympic Committee has already recognized the game, and chess will be included in the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar. Besides chess, bridge could also see inclusion in the Olympics as a "mind sport."
There's a catch, though. To be included, the governing bodies of these mind sports have to adopt and enforce World Anti-Doping Agency guidelines. While competitive chess players probably wouldn't benefit from anabolic steroids , since most chess pieces aren't that heavy, they can benefit from drugs that enhance cognitive performance. The list is broader than you think. While interviewing an ICF medical commission doctor a few years back, I learned that at least one chess competitor plays better drunk.
I thought about this after George W. Bush's latest State of the Union address. In it, the US president called for an end to the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport. "Athletics play such an important role in our society, but, unfortunately, some in professional sports are not setting much of an example," he said. "The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball , football, and other sports is dangerous, and it sends the wrong message—that there are shortcuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character. So tonight I call on team owners, union representatives, coaches, and players to take the lead, to send the right signal, to get tough, and to get rid of steroids now."
As Reason senior editor Jacob Sullum quickly pointed out, "A man who owes so much to inherited wealth and his family's political connections probably should not broach the topic of 'shortcuts to accomplishment.'" Nor should a man preach about drug use when he dodges questions about his own cocaine habit. And drugs or no drugs, there's a danger in fostering professional athletes as role models. Ask McDonald's, which just ended its relationship with Kobe Bryant, the NBA superstar accused of sexual assault.
It's not that easy, however, to dismiss Bush's call to arms. Sure, it's pre-election pandering to the Puritan middle class. But it also echoes noises that Leon Kass and his conservative bioethics cronies on the US President's Council on Bioethics make in their report Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. The report unsurprisingly comes out largely against "enhancement" technologies, including those for sports. And so this question gains significance: Are performance-enhancing drugs in sports really that bad? The answer is no. And the best way to deal with them, as with most enhancement technologies, isn't to ban them but to make them widely accessible.
In summary, there are three main arguments against the use of performance-enhancing drugs: That they'll give competitors an unfair advantage, that they're unsafe and that they'll change the nature of sports for the worse. None of them stands up to scrutiny.
The first argument is easy to dismiss, as it's a consequence of regulatory approaches, not the drugs themselves. Performance-enhancing drugs only create an unfair advantage when few people have access to them—specifically, those who can afford to pay for their inflated cost and the cost of hiding their use. Fewer restrictions would lead to greater equality. Not complete equality, of course, because wealthier athletes would have access to better drugs. But this discrepancy already exists. Wealthier athletes have better equipment, training programs and coaches, and also have more opportunity to train because they don't have to hold a nine-to-five job. The solution isn't to ban drugs, but to subsidize their use to equalize access.
The second argument is similarly weak. Health hazards stem not from drug use itself, but from a regulatory environment that makes drug use unsafe. Bans keep drugs unregulated and prevent pharmaceutical companies from researching and developing safer and more effective compounds. Bans also skew the development of performance-enhancing drugs, leading to a greater emphasis on their ability to evade tests rather than function safely. And with bans in place, medical officials don't know what substances competitors are taking, preventing them from treating competitors appropriately for injuries and illnesses. Finally, any argument from health is suspect because health concerns would lead us to ban many competitive sports outright. Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, for example, didn't develop early arthritis symptoms from tying his skate laces.
The third argument fails because it rests on too narrow a definition of "sport." Today's sports range from the largely unencumbered 100-meter dash to the largely technological F1 racing. Is wheelchair racing any less of a sport because it involves the science and technology of wheelchair design? Absolutely not. So why would we think that allowing the science and technology of drug design would change the nature of athletics? No more so than scientifically designed diets, nutritional supplements, training regimes and equipment.
All in all, there are no good arguments against the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport, and many reasons to question prohibition.
Two key concerns are what gets banned and how these bans are enforced. Caffeine, for example, was formerly banned by WADA, as were stimulant decongestants. As of January 1, both were off the list, despite the fact that they are performance enhancers. While this means that athletes won't be kicked out of competition for drinking coffee or taking over-the-counter cold remedies, it also underscores the lack of clarity between what makes drugs acceptable or unacceptable.
Another concern is whether bans on performance-enhancing drugs actually entrench rather than ameliorate inequality. In July 2002, for example, revered Australian middle-distance runner Ron Clarke argued in favor of performance-enhancing drugs, saying that they leveled the playing field between runners from high-altitude countries—altitude training increases the concentration of red blood cells and hemoglobin, improving oxygen-processing capacity—and others. "I'm not advocating drugs, I'm saying until there is a drug, there won't be any parity in any future competition," he said.
Indeed, there are many disparities between athletes that could be addressed through drugs. A big one, of course, is genetic predisposition. Top sprinters, for example, are more likely to have a particular variant of the gene ACTN3. This variant produces a protein called alpha-actinin-3 that helps their muscles contract more quickly and powerfully, giving them more explosive bursts of speed. A drug that mimics the protein could level the playing field amongst sprinters. Other drugs could do the same for other genetic predispositions.
This, of course, leads us to "genetic" doping—genetically engineering athletes—and the challenge that this poses to anti-doping agencies. After all, why use a drug to provide the benefits of genes when you can alter genes directly in a way that can't be detected? While it would be risky, gene therapy to improve sports performance is possible today. How would we test for it? How could we be certain whether an athlete was born with a genetic characteristic or received it through genetic tinkering?
We couldn't, and nor should we bother trying. While Bush's position—the position of the anti-doping forces—is politically expedient, it's not philosophically sound. It reflects an artificial and arbitrary distinction between enhancement and therapy—give a sprinter drugs to improve breathing and it's enhancement, give an asthmatic the same drugs to improve breathing and it's therapy.
Kass and company pretend to have validated the position, but what they've really done is obscured the issue. In sports as in life, groundless arguments and artificial distinctions won't and shouldn't prevent people from pushing boundaries in using what's available—from drugs to gene therapy—to be faster and stronger, to go higher and further.
If this really flusters Bush and his teammates, there are plenty of drugs they can take to chill out.
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