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Doping – The way of a cheat?

Tom Blackett   |  19/04/2016

It’s time for another BLOG!

Doping continues to be front page news, Maria Sharapova being another to recently fall foul of the World Anti Doping Agency’s strict agenda.  SO, here is my final article on the controversial topic that is drugs in sport!

In this blog you will see me attempt to DRILL into WADA’s justification for banning drugs because it is unethical and ‘contrary to the spirit of sport’.  As always your comments and opinions are more than welcome!

So, as we all know, ‘fair play’ is currently seen as an integral and non-negotiable part of all sport.  In fact I think it’s fair to say that ‘Fair play’ is now institutionalised in all sporting regulations. However believe it or not, this has not always been the case.  Elias (1986:138) highlights the fact that ‘fair play’ is actually a relatively recent/modern phenomenon.  He illustrates this by elaborating on the ancient Greek games where he notes that the values upheld by athletes were those of honour and glory rather than ‘fair play’; the games were indeed often governed unfairly by today’s standards.  This is clarified by Waddington (2000:106) who suggests that “one aspect of ‘fairness’ in the modern sports of boxing and wrestling is that each fighter is matched against an opponent of roughly similar weight, but neither the boxers nor the wrestlers of Olympia were classified according to weight.”  Given this information it is important to understand that concepts such as ‘fair play’ are indeed a relatively new phenomenon rather than a universal culture.

So why is it that the use of drugs is regarded as being an extreme form if not the worst form of cheating?  Normally if a player cheats in a sporting competition it is down to the referee to penalise the offending player appropriately.  For example if a foul tackle is committed in any physical sport, the offending player will have a penalty given against him/her and may receive a card/be sin-binned or sent off.  However if a player is discovered to be a doper then he/she may face a life-time ban as well as accusations of entirely “undermining the very foundation of the sport” (Waddington, 2000:110).  This punishment is evidently far worse than any other punishment prescribed for all other forms of ‘cheating.’

Schneider & Hong (2007) have suggested that it is the overpowering influence of sporting bodies such as WADA and the IOC which is the likely cause for society’s general shift towards a zero-tolerance attitude.  Furthermore Waddington (2000:111) also suggests that “public attitudes towards the use of drugs in sport have been ‘contaminated’, as it were, by the widespread public concern about the possession, sale and ‘abuse’ of controlled drugs in society more generally” which have associations with user-addiction, health problems and criminal activity.  Perhaps these reasons can help provide some clarification as to why drugs in sport are continued to be regarded as so immoral.

Savulescu, Foddy and Clayton (2004:1) also contribute to the ethics debate by making a comparison between professional sports stars and musicians.  They highlight that “Classical musicians commonly use β blockers to control their stage fright. These drugs lower heart rate and blood pressure, reducing the physical effects of stress, and it has been shown that the quality of a musical performance is improved if the musician takes these drugs. Although elite classical music is arguably as competitive as elite sport, and the rewards are similar, there is no stigma attached to the use of these drugs. We do not think less of the violinist or pianist who uses them. If the audience judges the performance to be improved with drugs, then the drugs are enabling the musician to express him or herself more effectively. The competition between elite musicians has rules—you cannot mime the violin to a backing CD. But there is no rule against the use of chemical enhancements”.

Elliott (2008:1) elaborates on this point suggesting that the use of beta blockers should not be seen “as improving someone’s skills, but as preventing the effects of anxiety from interfering with their skills” arguably helping the best player to win.  Furthermore Beta Blockers pose no risk to health if administered correctly “so unlike users of human growth hormone and steroids, users of beta blockers don’t have to worry about their heads growing or their testicles shrinking. You don’t even have to take them regularly. All you have to do is take a small, 10 mg tablet about an hour before your performance” (Elliott, 2008:1).

Some argue the case that sport discriminates against the genetically unfit; Ian Thorpe for example“has enormous feet which give him an advantage that no other swimmer can get, no matter how much they exercise. Some gymnasts are more flexible, and some basketball players are seven feet tall” (Savulescu, Foddy and Clayton, 2004:1) and thus by completely preventing doping, WADA are arguably preventing those with less fortunate genetics the chance of a winning position; consequently somewhat contradicting their agenda to promote equality. Perhaps if performance enhancing drugs were to be gradually legalised and regulated in some respects, with safety at the top of the priority list, “then suspicion would no longer need apply and the best players would be fairly rewarded for their on-field performances” (Smith, 2012:1).

However, society appears to be fixated with the ideology that doping negates an extraordinary athletic performance.  When in fact we should perhaps look beyond existing institutionalised attitudes and stereotypes as emphasised further by Savulescu, Foddy and Clayton (2004:1) who conclude that allowing doping in the Tour de France would not turn it “into some kind of “drug race”, any more than the various training methods offered turn it into a “training race” or a “money race”. Athletes train in different, creative ways, but ultimately they still ride similar bikes, on the same course. The skill of negotiating the steep winding descent will always be there”.

Now, I realise that there is no obvious answer when it comes to fixing the issue of drugs in sport.  However, as emphasised by Lance Armstrong’s case we know that drug tests don’t work, or at best are highly ineffective.  It seems it is only when an athlete makes a mistake and takes the wrong thing at the wrong time that he/she is caught and consequently slammed.  Perhaps it is time to accept that sport has evolved and that drugs are not going to disappear.  Instead, we should perhaps focus on keeping sport safe by closely monitoring athletes health and ensuring they are fit to compete.  This would arguably level the playing field more effectively as PEDs are often cheaper than many new training methods and technology; and thus the poorer athletes would stand a better chance of competing against the richer athletes, subsequently promoting a higher degree of equality.  Furthermore having a system that promotes health is something WADA already considers to be “intrinsically valuable about sport”.

How is great coaching, training methods and technology different to doping anyway? Controversial comments?

I would love to all hear your opinions on this topic! Send them in!

Keep up the good work everyone.

(I can provide a full list of references if anyone wants them)