The legalisation of drugs in sport may be fairer and safer
In 490 BC, the Persian Army landed on the plain of Marathon, 25 miles from Athens. The Athenians sent a messenger named Feidipides to Sparta to ask for help. He ran the 150 miles in two days. The Spartans were late. The Athenians attacked and, although outnumbered five to one, were victorious. Feidipides was sent to run back to Athens to report victory. On arrival, he screamed “We won” and dropped dead from exhaustion.
The marathon was run in the first modern Olympics in 1896, and in many ways the athletic ideal of modern athletes is inspired by the myth of the marathon. Their ideal is superhuman performance, at any cost.
DRUGS IN SPORT
The use of performance enhancing drugs in the modern Olympics is on record as early as the games of the third Olympiad, when Thomas Hicks won the marathon after receiving an injection of strychnine in the middle of the race.1 The first official ban on “stimulating substances” by a sporting organisation was introduced by the International Amateur Athletic Federation in 1928.2
Using drugs to cheat in sport is not new, but it is becoming more effective. In 1976, the East German swimming team won 11 out of 13 Olympic events, and later sued the government for giving them anabolic steroids.3 Yet despite the health risks, and despite the regulating bodies’ attempts to eliminate drugs from sport, the use of illegal substances is widely known to be rife. It hardly raises an eyebrow now when some famous athlete fails a dope test.
In 1992, Vicky Rabinowicz interviewed small groups of athletes. She found that Olympic athletes, in general, believed that most successful athletes were using banned substances.4
Much of the writing on the use of drugs in sport is focused on this kind of anecdotal evidence. There is very little rigorous, objective evidence because the athletes are doing something that is taboo, illegal, and sometimes highly dangerous. The anecdotal picture tells us that our attempts to eliminate drugs from sport have failed. In the absence of good evidence, we need an analytical argument to determine what we should do.
CONDEMNED TO CHEATING?
We are far from the days of amateur sporting competition. Elite athletes can earn tens of millions of dollars every year in prize money alone, and millions more in sponsorships and endorsements. The lure of success is great. But the penalties for cheating are small. A six month or one year ban from competition is a small penalty to pay for further years of multimillion dollar success.
Drugs are much more effective today than they were in the days of strychnine and sheep’s testicles. Studies involving the anabolic steroid androgen showed that, even in doses much lower than those used by athletes, muscular strength could be improved by 5–20%.5 Most athletes are also relatively unlikely to ever undergo testing. The International Amateur Athletic Federation estimates that only 10–15% of participating athletes are tested in each major competition.6
The enormous rewards for the winner, the effectiveness of the drugs, and the low rate of testing all combine to create a cheating “game” that is irresistible to athletes. Kjetil Haugen7 investigated the suggestion that athletes face a kind of prisoner’s dilemma regarding drugs. His game theoretic model shows that, unless the likelihood of athletes being caught doping was raised to unrealistically high levels, or the payoffs for winning were reduced to unrealistically low levels, athletes could all be predicted to cheat. The current situation for athletes ensures that this is likely, even though they are worse off as a whole if everyone takes drugs, than if nobody takes drugs.
Drugs such as erythropoietin (EPO) and growth hormone are natural chemicals in the body. As technology advances, drugs have become harder to detect because they mimic natural processes. In a few years, there will be many undetectable drugs. Haugen’s...
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