Doping – is it actually dangerous? If so then should it be banned?

Tom Blackett   |  23/07/2015

RIGHT – I’m in a blogging mood!

As mentioned at the end of my last post – today I’m going to drill into WADA’s suggestion that drugs pose a danger to an athlete’s health and should therefore be banned.  As usual I value your opinions and questions – so send them my way!  Shout out to Pip Kay – great email you sent me!

OK.. These first couple of paragraphs may seem a little heavy but read read READ! 

So, there are many academics who have questioned the legitimacy of a doping ban in sport particularly in relation to the suggestion that it endangers the health of an athlete. O’Leary (1998:65) suggests that if the ban on performance enhancing drugs is constructed on the premise that they pose a danger to an athlete’s health, then from a legal perspective such an attitude “is only valid if the effect of the prohibition is to protect those unable to make an informed and rational judgement for themselves or prevent harm to others” and thus justifying a ban on adult athletes deemed normally able to make their own decisions is difficult to enforce legitimately.

Similarly, Elliott (1996) highlights the fact that although there may be some health risks associated with some banned drugs; there are also health risks associated with some permitted drugs.  He highlights the dangers associated with phenylbutazone, a powerful anti-inflammatory used to reduce effects of arthritis, which is known to have numerous toxic side-effects, some of which have caused death in the past.  Furthermore all you need to do is just take a look at the back of a paracetamol box and you’ll see that there are plenty of potential risks some of which include hypotension, rashes, swellings and liver damage – should this also then be banned?

Savulescu, Foddy and Clayton (2004:1) also suggest that “for many athletes, sport is not safe enough without drugs. If they suffer from asthma, high blood pressure, or cardiac arrhythmia, sport places their bodies under unique stresses, which raise the likelihood of a chronic or catastrophic harm”.  “Sometimes, the treatments for these conditions will raise the performance of an athlete beyond that which they could attain naturally” (Savulescu, Foddy and Clayton, 2004:1)They conclude that safety should be prioritised and that, rather than doping being linked with cheating, it should be seen in the context of helping athletes to manage a medical condition.  If an archer for example “requires β blockers to treat heart disease, we should not be concerned that this will give him or her an advantage over other archers. Or if an anaemic cyclist wants to take EPO, we should be most concerned with the treatment of the anaemia” (Savulescu, Foddy and Clayton, 2004:1).

Mcrory (2007:1) also raises the point that the use of gene products (e.g. bone morphogenic protein for fractures) or platelet-derived growth factors for healing purposes (which is routine treatment with non-sporting patients), “now runs the risk of an athlete being banned from competition”,which may result in “the double-whammy of athletes potentially being denied routine medical therapy for the treatment of injury where the treatment has no anabolic or performance-enhancing effect beyond the accelerated injury recovery”.

Lets look at EPO, a hormone which helps create more red blood cells in your body which equates to better oxygen transportation and therefore a higher rate of aerobic respiration.  EPO can be created synthetically and is one of the substances Lance Armstrong was taking to improve his performance.  EPO is therefore banned as it will improve performance and can also (like most drugs) be a danger to health if taken wrongly and/or excessively.  It can for example increase the viscosity of the blood which increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.  However..  altitude chambers, which essentially do the same thing as EPO are not banned.  Altitude chambers are used to simulate the effects of high altitude on the human body, which in turn results in more red blood cells being created which (just like EPO) equates to better oxygen transportation and therefore a higher rate of aerobic respiration.  However Altitude chambers ALSO pose several health risks if used wrongly and/or irresponsibly; including decompression sickness and hypoxia which can in extreme cases cause death. Why aren’t altitude chambers banned too then?  Furthermore an altitude chamber is far more expensive than an 8 week course of EPO… Does that mean that richer athletes are gaining  also an unfair advantage? Anyhow.. I digress.  The whole level playing field reasoning I will cover in my next blog.

All in All.. what I’m trying to say is that all these examples and statements challenge and somewhat contradict a key principle of the WADC which is to promote health; an ideology to which all WADA conforming sports bodies subscribe.  Waddington (2000:103) continues to build on these contradictions by highlighting the increased sponsorship of sport by alcohol and tobacco companies suggesting that “the medical case against tobacco use would appear to be much stronger, and much more clearly established, than is the medical case against many of the drugs which are on the IOC banned list.”  In recent years however, this apparent contradiction has finally been addressed – tobacco advertising has been totally banned from all sports.

Alcohol on the other hand is still heavily involved in the sponsorship of sport. Within the world of Rugby Union, for example, professional outfits such as Harlequins and Wasps continue to endorse Green King Ale as a sponsor, whilst London Irish also have a similar association with Upham Brewery.  The 2013 Super Bowl also played host to several alcohol commercials such as the new Beck’s Sapphire advert and Bud Light advert.  Again – to me this is clearly contradictory to WADA’s health promoting agenda given that alcohol is never under any circumstances considered good for someone’s health and every year in the UK alone it is estimated that 33,000 people die due to an alcohol-related incident or associated health problem (Alcoholics-anonymous, 2015).

We can even develop this point further beyond tobacco and alcohol to unhealthy food; given that 20-30% of the adult population of the UK has been classified as obese (World Health Organisation, 2005) and that “as many as 30,000 people die prematurely every year from obesity-related conditions” (Macnair, 2011:1), it could be argued that McDonald’s and Coca Cola’s sponsorship of the London 2012 Olympics seems to contradict WADA’s health promoting agenda as well.

SO.. I feel there are too many inconsistencies when examining WADA’s  health promoting justification for the ban on drugs. How does everyone else feel?  In my opinion you can’t ban one drug and claim the reason for that ban is because its dangerous/potentially dangerous… but then allow another drug or method of improving performance which carries similar health risks – it is inconsistent.  Given these apparent contradictions, perhaps the main reason for the ban on doping lies in the supposition that doping is cheating and is fundamentally contrary to the spirit of fair competition.  In my next blog – I will explore this theme!

Thanks for reading guys.