The case for performance-enhancing drugs

2013 January 19

I want to talk about performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). I am by no means an expert on the subject. I have merely an amateur understanding of human physiology, but like everyone else, I have an opinion and little hesitation to share it. For the benefit of future readers, I should mention that I am writing in the context of Lance Armstrong's admission this week of doping during his Tour de France victories.

"PEDs aren't fair to athletes who don't use PEDs."

I often hear this sentiment phrased poorly:

  • "PEDs aren't fair to athletes who work hard."

    PEDs don't relieve an athlete from working hard. A hard-working athlete on PEDs will always best a slob on PEDs.

  • "PEDs aren't fair to athletes who can't afford them."

    At the elite levels of sport, every athlete is getting enough sponsorship to afford the same advantages.

Regardless, the point is that not everyone is using them---but maybe they should be. Take doping as an example. History shows a long record of it in cycling. In fact, of the 80 top-10 finishers in the Tour de France from 1998 to 2005, 36 have tested positive for or admitted to doping. The highest finish by a cyclist not implicated in doping during that time was 4th. Who knows how many of the rest just haven't been caught?

The only way for an athlete to give themself a chance of winning in the presence of cheaters is to cheat, and judging from history, the only way to ensure a clean contest is to permit every assistance.

The line separating legal and illegal is completely arbitrary, and that line is constantly adapting to new advances. Substances and treatments permitted today could be banned tomorrow (blood doping was first banned in 1985, by the International Olympics Committee). For many people, PEDs tie into their sense of fairness, which shouldn't be so fickle. The common retort is that...

"PEDs are just different."

This claim comes in a few flavors:

  • "PEDs are unnatural."

    What is "natural"? Are PEDs unnatural because they aren't produced within the human body? Many substances we allow fit that description, such as food. Doping can be done with the subject's own blood. Are PEDs unnatural because they require a complex process to synthesize? So do energy drinks and medicines. There is nothing to distinguish PEDs as less natural than any of the wide variety of substances permitted in sports.

  • "PEDs allow a person to exceed their genetic potential."

    What is "genetic potential"? I believe that the laws of nature prohibit any human from exceeding their genetic potential. In other words, your genetic potential includes your body's response to substances.

Muscle growth and performance are the sum of the chemical reactions occurring in the body. The limiting factors for these reactions are reagents (e.g., protein and carbohydrates) and catalysts (e.g., hormones). Further, athletes employ all manner of technologies (e.g., lighter bikes or streamlined helmets) and treatments (e.g., ice or compression) to boost their performance. PEDs fall into each of these categories alongside their sanctioned brethren.

Finally, what makes genetic potential so fair? People are born with all manner of genetic abnormalities, some of which lead to the expression of rare phenotypes that confer an athletic advantage. Why is genetic potential immune to the criticisms levied against PEDs? It is unrelated to hard work, and no athlete can buy it. Sport, as much as people wish, can never have a level playing field.