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Is It Time to Legalize Doping?

Probably half of the athletes at the Winter Olympics will be doping. So what can be done about it? The most rational response would be to allow drugs in sport.

I sometimes think of Olympic athletes as Ghost Dancers. Followers of the American Indian cult of the late 19th century performed a ritual dance and clothed themselves in garments they believed would render them invulnerable to whites’ bullets.

Athletes enter tournaments, confident in the expectation that whatever dope they’ve been taking to enhance their competitive performance will remain undetected, and that they’ll emerge triumphant, reputations in tact. Those unlucky enough to be discovered will be like the ill-fated Sioux who met their fate at Wounded Knee in 1890. For the majority, the shirts work like a charm.

Most athletes are savvy enough to use designer drugs, synthetic analogues of banned substances, devised to circumvent anti-doping rules. There’s little doubt that a large number of participants, including medal winners, at the Winter Olympic Games, which start in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on February 9, will be using drugs unimpeded — and we will never know.

But, if there’s one thing we do know it’s this: Since Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’s epoch-making drugs case launched the war on drugs in sports in earnest after the 1988 Summer Olympics, athletes in every sport have shown a preparedness to use dope, have remained undeterred by the prospect of punishment and will certainly continue to do whatever they can to procure a competitive advantage by fair means or foul.

There have been well-publicized transgressors often used spuriously as proof that the war on doping is being won by the testers and the World Anti-Doping Agency — the organization started by the International Olympic Committee to promote, coordinate and monitor the fight against drugs in sports. Lance Armstrong is the best known of professional athletes publicly humiliated and denuded of his garlands. Once-untouchable track star Marion Jones is another. Current world 100-meter champion Justin Gatlin has served two bans.

Incentives to Succeed

But the case that took sports doping to geopolitical levels involved the whole nation of Russia. Investigations revealed the existence of a long-running policy of what many call state-sponsored doping. Even allowing for the ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport that there is “insufficient evidence” to punish some Russian athletes thought to be involved in the operation, it seems reasonable to suggest that Russian athletes have used drugs on an oceanic scale. But which of all countries where sports are pursued is drug-free? Answer: none.

This is a horrifying statement for many. Yet there will be doping violations that come to light over the next two weeks, and there will be many, many more that will go unnoticed. The British Journal of Sports Medicine recently published the results of a study of 2,167 athletes. The estimated prevalence of doping use in the previous 12 months was at 43.6% for participants at World Championships in Athletics in Daegu, South Korea, in August 2011. The number was even higher (57.1%) in the Pan Arab Games in Doha, Qatar, in December 2011, with 70.1% of supplements used in the previous 12 months.

The findings are far from definitive, but they are plausible. Only chronically naïve observers will assume that less than half of the competitors in any given biathlon, ice hockey or cross-country skiing event are clean. Add to this an undisclosed number of athletes granted therapeutic exemptions to take prohibited drugs because of a certified medical condition and you arrive at an inescapable inference: Most athletes are using some kind of dope.

Even the president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the world governing organization of track and field, appears resigned to this. “There can be no guarantees,” declared Lord Coe last year, “people will always seek to cheat.” Of course, “cheating,” in this sense, is a function of rules rather than a moral deed. Athletes behave dishonestly to try gain an advantage in an activity that offers huge incentives to succeed.

Law of Common Sense

A rational person might ask, Why keep putting so much effort into testing and punishing athletes when you know full well that everything you do is futile? Full-scale testing started in 1972. Isn’t 46 years long enough to decide it isn’t working? It’s like inserting your credit card into a cashpoint only to be informed that there are not enough funds to complete this transaction, and then standing there for nearly five decades hoping something will change.

The law of common sense has been lacking in sports for too long. A more honest and sophisticated approach to doping would be to allow it. In one rule-change, the most bedeviling problem for world sports would disappear and, in an instant, sports would become a safer environment.

Safer? Yes. Athletes are currently getting unknown and untested substances from who knows where, taking them in quantities and at intervals that could be parlous and, often, masking them with substances that, themselves, are hazardous. We’re never going to reclaim the Chariots of Fire spirit of fair play — money has guaranteed that. And sports fans today wouldn’t want to; they expect their heroes to run faster, fight harder and compete more relentlessly than ever. They know their heroes use hypnotism, acupuncture, oxygenated chambers and a miscellany of other exotic accessories to improve their competitive performance. It wouldn’t take a great feat of forbearance for them to approve of doping, and, in truth, many probably already do.

But wait. What about the example this sets for aspiring young athletes? Won’t they become casualties? Don’t underestimate the astuteness of the young. They know full well that every step they take toward the top is a step closer to Mephistopheles. By the time they start entertaining hopes of a professional career in sports, they’ll have been discreetly informed that their pursuit of titles will be in vain unless they enter into the pact. About half do so, if the numbers cited previously are to be believed. Success in sports is the most uncompassionate demon of all: Winners win at any cost.

Professional sports created its own problem when it first introduced dope testing. It was, in the late 1960s, a sensible reaction to the drug-related deaths of cyclists Knud Jensen (1960) and Tom Simpson (1967). The primary concern was to safeguard competitors. After the Johnson case in 1988, cheating became the main consideration.

Back then, no one could have predicted how sports would become global entertainment to be worth $73.5 billion in North America alone by 2019, according to Forbes, or that some athletes would command yearly incomes approaching $100 million. (Floyd Mayweather, Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James all earned over $86 million last year). Anti-drug policy was probably right for the 1970s, when athletes were inadvertently killing themselves. Today, it’s bizarrely out of sync. So why persist?

At Any Cost

In sports, principal sources of income are media and sponsorship, the latter depending on the former. In other words, a corporation such as Toyota pays the International Olympic Committee $1.63 billion over eight years in the knowledge that Olympic Games are televised practically everywhere in the world and draw prodigious viewing audiences. Similarly, the brewers InBev are able to spend $1.4 billion on a deal with the NFL until 2022 because it knows the football league has broadcasting outlets everywhere. The likes of Verizon, Sony, McDonalds and other major sponsors pay to have their brands linked with activities that radiate health, wholesomeness and wellbeing, both physical and moral. Would they be happy to have their corporate names associated with an enterprise that permits something as baleful, depraved and destructive as drugs?

No matter that athletes take pharmaceutically created substances — many available without prescription at pharmacy counters — with the explicit intention to maximize athletic performance and with no regard for recreational affairs: the word “drugs” is powerfully suggestive. It conjures images like the Californian couple who tried to sell their babies for drugs, Mexican drug lords like El Chapo or the opioid epidemic currently sweeping across the world. Sponsors are alive to the potentially damaging effects of such associations.

When the games open, there will be the usual self-congratulatory confirmations that the drug testing will be the most rigorous in history and that violators will be rooted out. Some will. Most won’t. The illusion that doping could be extirpated from sport was never more than that — a deceptive impression. Legalizing drugs in sports is the only route to redeeming some congruence with the reality of professional sports in the 21st century.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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