Elite athletes should be able to take whatever performance-enhancing drugs they want

Usain Bolt has just deservedly won the 100m World Championship for a third time, having beaten Justin Gatlin on the line by a thousandth of a second. It was a superb race, full of needle and bite.

Bolt showed himself to be every inch the legend he is by overcoming Gatlin’s far superior form and his own shaky performance in the qualifying rounds, epitomised by this morning’s semi-final in which he basically had to start again about 35 metres in after coming close to falling.

Unfortunately a great race between two supreme competitors was marred by commentators’ insistence on making it about the reputation of the sport. Gatlin is very much the pantomime villain in the eyes of the athletics community, having come back from a four-year ban for taking testosterone.

Steve Cram’s ludicrously overblown commentary on the final epitomised this. As Bolt crossed the finish line and began to cavort as is his wont, Cram went so far as to say that the Jamaican “may have saved his sport”.

My own view on this is likely to be unpopular. But it seems fairly clear to me that one race – however cathartic the result – does nothing to address the fundamental issue here. The problem is that once you introduce prohibition, people will inevitably seek ways around that prohibition. It is what human beings do.

In the world of elite athletics, where sportspeople are focused on doing everything they can to gain a tiny competitive advantage, it is little wonder that every so often -probably more often than anyone cares to admit, and certainly more often than the authorities are able to spot – someone finds a new way to cheat.

The answer is to recognise that “performance enhancement” is the essence of what it means to be an elite athlete. The Olympic motto, “Citius, Altius, Fortius” – faster, higher, stronger – is the simplest formulation of that credo.

A truly liberal solution to the problem of drugs in sport would simply be to treat athletes like adults. They take risks with their own bodies all the time in an effort to improve themselves. The wonders of biomedical science are brought to bear on them; in many ways they are lab rats masquerading as entertainers. So why are we so squeamish about what they choose to put in their bodies?

Clearly there should be safeguards, particularly for athletes on the cusp of adulthood who may be put under too much pressure. No one wants a return to an era when hundreds of athletes were routinely and indiscriminately doped for the glory of the Soviet state. So you might have to tighten competition rules to prevent the occasional precocious teenager from having too great an incentive to take too big a risk.

Some might also say that it would give too great an advantage to the wealthier nations or athletes, who are able to access and develop more expensive treatments and drugs. But let’s get real. If that’s a problem, it already exists. If you’re at the top of a sport it means you have the best of everything – nutrition, training, accommodation, and the rest. It seems unlikely to me that in a World Championship final such as the one run today, there is a major difference between the financial support each athlete in the race receives.

The only other objection that I can see is moral. It’s in the semantics of the debate, this, and probably the biggest barrier to my suggestion ever becoming a reality. People love to throw around words like “clean”, “pure”, “unimpeachable”, and the rest. The response to the race today sounded more like a Daily Mail article than anything else – pious and moralistic, damning of an athlete in Gatlin whose only current crime is to have had the guts to return to the sport, as he is perfectly entitled to do under current rules.

But if you’re not going to open up athletics completely to all of the technological and biomedical innovation and ingenuity humanity can muster, and you’re not going to ban people for life when they take drugs, you should probably stop whinging or suggesting that the whole sport is somehow under threat when an athlete of Gatlin’s calibre comes close to winning a major championship.

It’s time to treat athletes and sports fans alike as adults.

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8 thoughts on “Elite athletes should be able to take whatever performance-enhancing drugs they want

  1. I think you are absolutely wrong. You appear to be suggesting that it should be OK for athletes – generally young people – to take substances which may do them long-term harm. Have a look at http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2005/nov/01/athletics.gdnsport3 You look from your picture to be too young to remember the extent to which East German athletes used to dominate some sports – we now know they were cheating. That relates to state-sponsored doping but given the prestige and money at stake don’t tell me that free world athletes aren’t under similar pressure to take stuff which may do them real long term harm.

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    • Hi. Thanks for your comment. I actually addressed the specific issue of state-sponsored doping along Soviet/East German lines in the article.

      Elite athletics is arguably a form of long term harm in itself, given how much it pushes the human body to and beyond its normal limits. I’m not suggesting that anyone should be made to take drugs against their will, but that athletes should be able to choose for themselves.

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  2. So you find it an acceptable idea that a young athlete – maybe in their late teens – should be allowed to choose to take something which may do them long-term harm long after they have stopped competing? In terms of ‘pushing the body beyond its normal limits’, leaving aside the issue of head injuries in some sports (only now being addressed seriously) I would suggest that without doping most athletes might be at risk of mechanical problems with the bodywork later in life but that is far less serious that the damage which might be done through doping. If you want a (possible) free world example – have a look at Flo-Jo – dead long before her time. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Griffith_Joyner#Allegations_of_drug_use or
    http://observer.theguardian.com/osm/story/0,,1140773,00.html

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    • Yes, I do find it acceptable. That is what freedom is. They are not harming others in choosing to take whatever it might be that they take. Much as any extreme sportsperson chooses to put themselves in harm’s way – or would you also ban sports like surfing, free climbing or even Formula 1? Even cricket, a pretty genteel game, has recently led to deaths either on the field of play or soon after an incident on the field of play.

      The example of Flo-Jo isn’t a great one either, given the allegations were never proven and she had other medical issues.

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  3. OK, why shouldn’t an athlete be allowed to do the 100m on a bike, or in a car? Because, as I think you’ll agree, the rules say they can’t, but using your argument, a liberal solution would say they should be free to cover the distance however they wish.

    The rules in this, as they are in any sporting event, are completely arbitrary but they’re there to establish a framework for competition. Sometimes the rules change (did you know bikes that could freewheel were banned from the early Tours de France because it was seen as cheating?) but that’s normally in the face of social pressure or declining popularity. Maybe the liberal way is to let the market decide: set up a separate doping-allowed athletics championship and see which people prefer to watch.

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