Should Doping in Sports Be Considered Cheating?


I like to skim my news RSS feed every morning just to catch up on headlines, world events, etc. Most of the time I blow off CNN’s Opinion columnists, because frankly they tend to be either fluffy rehashes of public opinion or purposeful bear-poking statements. Today’s, though, has me outraged, as the author had the gall and ignorance to argue that performance-enhancing drugs, or PEDs, should be legalized in the wake of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal.

Rather than just rant on my feelings regarding doping (spoiler alert: I think it’s cheating), let me go piece by piece through Prof Cashmore’s arguments and take them apart.

This is cheating. In a technical sense, perhaps; but that could be fixed by changing the rules. In a moral sense, it is unfair on those competitors who do not wish to use drugs. The evidence of the Armstrong investigation suggests that many other cyclists were habitual dopers, anyway. We can’t say the same for other sports, though we can remind competitors that among the array of performance enhancing aids which are available to them, such as acupuncture, hypnotism, hypoxic tents (that simulate high altitude) and the countless other perfectly legal performance enhancements are some that are probably more dangerous than drugs.

Yikes … so because everyone else is cheating it is ok? I think here we need to consider what the point of an athletic endeavor, especially an individualized one like cycling or running, truly is. Do you follow cycling because you want to see how fast someone can ride a bike, or do you follow it because watching someone push themselves past their physical and mental limits to victory is inspiring?

Personally, I love following professional running because I see people achieving an amazing standard through strength, training, and yes, good genetics. I know I will never achieve anywhere near what an elite runner can accomplish, but I feel inspired to push a little harder when I watch someone fly by and see what the human body can do. I don’t follow it because I want to see what better living through chemistry can do. And while yes, there was a ton of pressure and prize money in pro cycling to dope, that doesn’t mean it’s okay. That means a few people gamed the system, and as a result others sought to do the same just to keep up. It diminishes greatly the idea that this is about athletics. It becomes about who has more money to pay for doctors and drugs.

Also, I love how the author casually mentions that “legal” ways to enhance training can also be dangerous. Anything in life is dangerous, but I have a very hard time believing acupuncture is riskier than, say, purposely thickening your blood for better oxygen efficiency while also¬†increasing your chances of a stroke or heart attack.

Taking drugs is wrong. Maybe, but how many of us get through a day without taking a pharmaceutical product, such as statins, antidepressants, painkillers and so on? By an accident of language we use the same term for these products and performance enhancing materials as we do for illicit drugs like crack cocaine and heroin. This misleads us into imagining related objections.

This is the most insane point in my opinion. I took Advil last night for a headache. But by his logic, if I was home anyway, I should have just popped a few percoset. After all, it’s not crack cocaine.

If Lance and the other cyclists had been busted for caffeine, or trace drugs from cold medicine, I would understand this argument. But when you get into purposely changing your hormone levels and body chemistry, you’ve moved way beyond headache medicine. Anytime you receive something that drastically alters how your body functions, there are side effects, and usually they are given for specific health reasons. Pushing beyond your natural genetic athletic limits is not a good reason. Either you have the talent to win, or you don’t. Not everyone is a winner, and it doesn’t mean you get to dope up to chase the golden ring.

There are too many dangers. Of course there are — as the situation is now. By inviting athletes to declare with impunity what they are using, we encourage and open discourse and promote research so we’d be in a position to advise on the relative values and risks of different substances. This openness isn’t possible while we continue to force drug-taking underground. Opening up sport in the way I’m advocating would render it a safer, more secure environment.

But this still centers around the idea that sports stars should use drugs, not to mention the fact that, again, studied or not, steroids and EPO have dangerous side effects.

And again, it depends heavily on how you perceive sports. If it is all about the money and the bottom line, then a carefully monitored risk seems ok. But in my view, there is no honor in that sort of victory.

Sports stars are role models. Possibly. But they are not paragons of virtue, and even if they were, young people who follow them and organize their own naive ambitions around theirs will eventually run into the rock hard reality that drugs are to sport what Twitter is to celebrities — not exactly essential, but a valuable resource when used strategically.

This I actually agree with, sort of. I don’t worship the ground athletes walk on, but I do look to their (honest) performances as something to admire. At the same time, we, as a society, choose to put athletes on a pedestal. And if we are going to admire someone’s performance, it should be an honest, clean one. Not stacked by who has a better pharmacist.

Fans would turn off sport. Ask yourself this: Did you feel a thrill when you saw the imperious Armstrong cross the line at the 2002 Tour de France seven minutes ahead of his nearest rival? Or when you watched Marion Jones surge to victory at the Olympic 100m final in 2000? At the time, we didn’t realize they or, for that matter, any of their rivals had doped. And it didn’t affect our enjoyment of their performances any more than if we’d known they were wearing aerodynamically designed clothing.

Personally speaking, it does diminish how I feel about an event. Admittedly, I see this through the filter of being an avid runner, but when I see someone running a marathon in my half marathon goal time I am inspired. I see the pain on their faces, and I recognize it because I feel that same pain (albeit at much slower speeds). But I want to know that someone is capable of achieving those speeds with hard work and determination; to me, that’s the ultimate inspiration.

Before I wrap up this rant/counter-point and open up for comments, I want to suggest that anyone who feels otherwise read one book: The Perfect Mile. Reading about the training, drive, and desire of Sir Roger Bannister’s world record-breaking run, and the two men who were trying just as hard around the world to beat Bannister to it, is the most inspiring sports book I have ever read. No one thought a sub-4 minute mile was humanly possible until Roger Bannister did it. The stories of Roger Bannister, Wes Santee, and John Landy are the stories of athletes who pushed their natural talent to the absolute limit. The book is a reminder of what the human body can do, not what a cocktail of hormones and drugs can accomplish!

Do you agree that doping is cheating, and the answer isn’t to just shrug and let it go? Or do you think once that Pandora’s box was opened, there was no looking back? Let us know in the comments!

Categories: Health and Fitness, Rants and Raves

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9 replies

  1. His entire argument is done at the level of a teenager trying to get their way … and I have heard better from my son’s high school debate team. You are completely right – his argument is that since cheating will always be there we might as well make it the standard. Wait, what?!? And how long before we get ‘Steroids OTC … run your next marathon like a PRO!’ There is a big difference between taking some advil for pain or putting on some icy heat on a joint, and having a medication system that is essentially genetic engineering. And it absolutely DOES taint the sport. How can I take cycling seriously when pretty much everyone in the top 10 for the last decade or so was doping?

  2. While I don’t agree with the sanction of doping, I’m not sure that this discussion is completely out of bounds. There are some valid points made, and has an interesting parallel with the arguments decades ago about whether competition should be opened to professional athletes.

    First, many athletes currently have access to training facilities and methods that do give them an advantage (as well as the resources to allow full-time training), all other things being equal. I am not sure how allowing doping will level that playing field – wealthier athletes and/or nations will always have access to better resources. You reject acupuncture as not being dangerous, but that is not exactly what the author said, and his point about hypoxic tents is valid – it is a way to get the same effect as taking EPO, with the same possible side effects – and is perfectly legal.

    You ask, “Do you follow cycling because you want to see how fast someone can ride a bike, or do you follow it because watching someone push themselves past their physical and mental limits to victory is inspiring?” Some people – perhaps many people – follow it for both reasons. (And I should note that nobody can push past physical limits – physical limits are physical limits, period. But I understand what you mean.)

    Again, there was plenty of controversy about opening athletic competition to professionals, as this supposedly unleveled the playing field, giving the pros an unfair advantage of better coaching methods, longer times practicing their sport, etc. The fact was, though, that many athletes who were said to be amateurs were actually professionals, so the playing field was already unleveled. I think that opening up to doping should not happen, but I respect the argument that bringing what is done surreptitiously (and perhaps dangerously) by many already to formal supervision of medical professionals already will level the playing field again and be safer for the athletes who dope.

    Unfortunately, though, there are too many unethical medical professionals who will provide services that are dangerous to the health of the athletes that I think we cannot afford to formally sanction doping even if it is under the strict guidance of physicians. (Michele Ferrari, who allegedly designed all of Lance Armstrong’s doping protocols and was already convicted for fraud regarding doping athletes, is a physician, for example.)

  3. This really has nothing to do with legalizing doping, or sanctioning certain practices, but security expert Bruce Schneier wrote a great essay about sports doping, mentioning the “prisoner’s dilemma” reasons why athletes choose to dope. (Also, parenthetically, it discusses some issues with false positives of some testing methods that I was not aware of before this. This is particularly important if these tests are used on stored, frozen samples.)

    Anyway, I think it’s worth a read:


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