With the International Cycling Union’s position on the sanctions imposed by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency regarding Lance Armstrong’s doping allegations expected today, Lance Armstrong and performance-enhancing drugs have held their position as a hot topic in sports media. While the allegations remain controversial, and the case is still wading though the process of revisions and appeals, it has exposed many aspects of the high performance sports world that are rarely investigated, let alone discussed. Which brings me to my curiosity surrounding performance-enhancing drugs, and the practice of doping. For all the shock and awe surrounding the allegations, I question what fuels the general outrage at the realization that some of the greatest athletes of our times have been doping? While an intuitive response would involve the regular points of the injustices, the dangers, and the artificial aspects of doping, I think it is important to explore the often unexamined side of the controversy, the pro-doping argument.
My first experience with the argument for pro-doping came in discussing the allegations against Lance Armstrong with a roommate* who challenged my immediate reaction of doping as being unethical. To my surprise, she did in fact present several compelling points for me to consider before passing judgement on those athletes that have been accused of doping.
Firstly, she argued that it leveled the playing field for all athletes. Exemplified by the evidence in the Armstrong case, with continuing developments in sports medicine, it has become easier than ever to avoid a positive reading on screening tests. For the teams who have access to this type of advanced technology, and the funds to pay for it, it is possible to reap the benefits of doping without the consequences of being caught. Indeed, many of Armstrong’s teammates did not admit to doping until his case came to light. According to new information that has surfaced over the course of the Armstrong case, doping was so pervasive within the Tour de France, that if Armstrong were to be stripped of his titles “there will be no replacement winner named for years 1999 through 2005.” According to the director of the Tour, this demonstrates the already un-fair playing field that exists. This then renders certain sports – where doping is pervasive – highly unequal between the teams who can beat the tests, the teams who cannot, and the teams who do not use performance-enhancing drugs in the first place.
Further, it can be argued that professional sport is necessarily a boundary-pushing activity, where the goal is constant growth and improvement. Sport has continually been improving through technology, money, and innovation, so what disqualifies performance-enhancing drugs from these categories? In this view, doping could be compared with aerodynamic gear, which also shaves seconds off top performances. It also seems commonly accepted in sport that countries with the capacity can mold athletes from youth into gold-medalists, using the latest in clothing, equipment, and training. However, anything ingested is considered taboo in comparison. Many argue that since countries indeed do not have equal capacities for accessing performance-enhancing drugs, that doping creates large cleavages of inequality within sport. Yet since many countries pursue alternate means to enhance athletes, it should be questioned why doping is considered prohibited.
While it can be argued that a line has to be set somewhere for allowable levels of sports-enhancing technology, it is interesting to explore all arguments behind where it should be set. Lance Armstrong has once again brought important issues in sports to light, although this time unintentionally. I am, for one, still holding out that he can be exonerated from the doping allegations, which is a mark against my personal lingering distaste for doping, whatever the reasons behind it may be. If I’ve learnt anything from my impromptu debate with my roommate regarding doping ethics, it would be to not judge too quickly the athletes who have been accused of turning to doping practices as a method of enhancing their performance.
*Thanks to Cailey Bekker for interesting points!