Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Economist Makes the Case for Doping

Two notions are advanced against doping in sport: safety and fairness. The first makes sense, the second less so—particularly when it comes to gene therapy. For instance, some people have innate genetic mutations which give them exactly the same sort of edge. Eero Mantyranta, a Finn, was a double Olympic champion in cross-country skiing. His body has a mutation that causes it to produce far more of a hormone called EPO than a normal person would. This hormone stimulates the production of red blood cells. A synthetic version of it is the (banned) drug of choice for endurance athletes.

Mr Mantyranta was allowed to compete because his advantage was held to be a “natural” gift. Yet the question of what is natural is no less vexed than that of what is fair. What is natural about electric muscle stimulation? Or nibbling on nutrients that have been cooked up by chemists? Or sprinting in special shoes made of springy carbon fibre? Statistically speaking, today’s athletes are unlikely to be any more naturally gifted than their forebears, but records continue to fall. Nature is clearly getting a boost from somewhere.

Given that so much unnatural tampering takes place, the onus is surely on those who want to ban doping (genetic or otherwise) to prove that it is unusually unfair. Some point out, for instance, that it would help big, rich countries that have better access to the technology. But that already happens: just compare the training facilities available to the minuscule Solomon Islands squad alongside those of mighty Team America. In druggy sports it may narrow the gap. One condition of greater freedom would be to enforce transparency: athletes should disclose all the pills they take, just as they register the other forms of equipment they use, so that others can catch up.

From this perspective, the sole concern when it comes to enhancing athletic performance should be: is it safe for the athletes? Safety is easier to measure than fairness: doctors and scientists adjudicate on such matters all the time. If gene doping proves dangerous, it can be banned. But even then, care should be exercised before a judgment is reached.

Many athletes seem perfectly willing to bear the risks of long-term effects on their health as a result of their vocations. Aged Muhammad Ali’s trembling hands, for example, are a direct result of a condition tellingly named dementia pugilistica. Sport has always been about sacrifice and commitment. People do not admire Mr Mantyranta because he had the luck of the genetic draw. They admire him for what he achieved with his luck. Why should others be denied the chance to remedy that deficiency?
I completely agree that rules on doping should be based primarily on safety. Fairness is in the eye of the beholder. Remember when we believed that it wasn't fair for Olympic athletes to be professionals? No one seems to think that anymore.

I also find it strange that society has no issues with allowing people to be boxers or linemen in football which both have huge impacts on the life expectancy and health of individuals but has huge problems with baseball players taking steroids which have much lower impacts on health.

Some argue that if doping is allowed, then anyone who wants to be competitive will be forced to do it as well. That is true, but those that want to be competitive have already made lots of other sacrifices in order to be at the top. As long as the doping is found to be safe, or at least no dangerous than other activities that athletes partake in, I am ok with it.

via The Economist

Update: John Tierney of the NY Times makes a similar argument in favor of doping.

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