Should doping be allowed in sports?

Every time that there is a major doping scandal associated with sports, like the recent one in which Lance Armstrong was portrayed as essentially a drug kingpin who “didn’t just take drugs: he was the enforcer of a small mafia within professional cycling that moved ruthlessly against anyone who threatened to expose him or his collaborators. He bullied and threatened team-mates, journalists and fellow cycling professionals and officials”, calls emerge that maybe we should simply allow it.

The argument in favor of doing so tends to be a mixture of libertarian philosophy (if athletes want to risk their health and even lives by ingesting these drugs they should be allowed to do so, since it is their own bodies) and a sense of futility (it seems hopeless to achieve a level of policing that would eliminate it altogether so the present policy of banning it mainly hurts honest athletes). So why not make it an option open to anyone?

Matt Seaton argues that the idea that legalizing doping would level the playing field is fallacious because the best doping protocols are very expensive and allowing doping would enable only those with the biggest budgets to be successful.

Thanks to the Usada report, we know what the best doping programme money can buy looks like. And thanks to the 1998 Festina scandal, we also know what the cheap and desperate version looks like: a random cocktail of drugs stashed in the back of a car driven by a soigneur who was high himself, paid for by an impoverished French team from pooling the winnings of their meagre results.

Legalising this situation would only rubber-stamp what was already happening: a pharmacological arms race that ensured dominance for the best-funded, most professionally managed doping scheme (USPS/Discovery’s), but which was a game of Russian roulette with their health for the sport’s poor relations (teams like Festina). No one in their right mind wants to go back there.

He asks rhetorically at the end, “In the end, the choice is a simple one. Who would you prefer to see winning the Tour de France: the greatest cyclist in the world or the dope-cheat with the biggest budget?”

This is why I am increasingly disenchanted with professional sports.


  1. jamessweet says

    I oppose allowing unrestricted doping, however, I do think that athletes in injury-heavy sports (in particular, I am thinking of American football, and will refer to that directly from now on) should be permitted to use steroids for the purpose of injury recovery, under very strict protocols.

    The fact is, NFL players can suffer an injury for which my doctor would give me steroids, but they can’t take them because of the zero tolerance policy — and these guys are planning on going back and getting hit by a 300+ lb man in mere months or even weeks after their original injury! It’s madness that they aren’t allowed to receive the most effective treatment, and worse yet, there are anecdotal reports of an injury becoming a “gateway” to performance-enhancing use: A player, frustrated by the rate of recovery, makes a locker room connection to get steroids, and then when he’s better the temptation to continue using is just too strong.

    It is quite simply safer and healthier for NFL players to be using steroids for injury recovery, given the demands that we place on their bodies. They should be administered only be a league doctor, under a very strict protocol. But they should be allowed for that purpose.

  2. Chiroptera says

    …if athletes want to risk their health and even lives by ingesting these drugs they should be allowed to do so, since it is their own bodies….

    Which is ridiculous. In almost every other occupation, there are laws and regulations and work-place specific rules that limit what the employees can do, rules which even limit their free choices. This is similar, in my opinion, to all the other occupational safety laws and regulations and rules that the rest of us have to work under.

    And one reason for these — beyond the fact that, no, employers, unions, theater associations, and sporting organizations are under no obligation to allow their empoyees and members to hurt themselves even if they choose to — is that it soon ceases to be a choice. If a few athletes choose to use doping, then everyone else has to do it also in order to be competetive.

  3. Chiroptera says

    And another thing,

    the main reason that so many athletes desire to engage in things like doping is because it gives them a competitive advantage…because they expect most of their competitors are obeying the rules. When everyone else is able to level up using doping, the current dopers will find that their advantage will disappear and that they are risking their health for nothing.

    There may be sports where athletes are forced to engage in doping precisely because everyone else is. But I would (perhaps naively) expect these athletes would support better enforcement of the rules.

  4. smrnda says

    The usual reason to oppose this is that it will force people who don’t want to dope to do so in order to be competitive, and I think that’s a fairly good reason. It’s kind of the way that practice hours are limited by the NCAA – if there was no limit, every coach would try to do more than the other coach and student athletes would never get to class. If it was anything goes with performance enhancing drugs, coaches would probably pressure players to take them.

    But Jamessweet, I think you have a very good point that we’re being kind of arbitrary by saying “steroids are always bad” given that they do have a legitimate use. Put the right policies in place and it should not be a big deal, any more than any other drug.

  5. naturalcynic says

    Festina probably shouldn’t be considered a “poor relation”, it was one of the highest ranking teams through most of the 90’s, winning the team classification one year [’94] in the Tour de France, having several top 10 finishers through the decade and winning some classic events. They were only “poor relations” in comparison to the skill that US Postal evaded notice in the years following the Festina scandal.
    Another problem could be what is considered to be an illegal performance enhancement from what is considered legal. The anti-doping forces will usually be one or two steps behind the doping athletes and those who devise new methodologies. What may be new drug or other modality may be used one or two years legally before the research is completed that will give the anti-dopers sufficient grounds to institute a ban. It’s an arms race where the anti-dopers will almost always be behind. Another problem has been the changing amounts of substances that are legal in lo concentrations but are illegal in higher amounts.
    And what if Lance Armstrong was the greatest cyclist in the world and the biggest cheat?

  6. naturalcynic says

    Thinking about the Armstrong case a little more…
    The role Armstrong had in this scandal needs to be clarified a little. He seems to have arrived on the scene after the Postal team was already involved. His role might be like a new mob boss/criminal mastermind taking over a criminal enterprise and making it more successful.
    One of the successes was not getting caught. In order to do this, they had to evade the testing protocols by understanding the limits they could approach, but not cross. They had to avoid the temptation that if a little is good, more will be better, where more will get you caught and possibly cause health problems too. Timing of doping modalities had to be considered too, trying to find the sweet spot where the effects of the modality were still occurring, but undetectable due to knowing how to time the washout or using only minimal amounts of a masking agent.
    Another thing about Armstrong is that I seem to remember him always claiming that all the drug tests he took were negative. Notice that this is not a claim that he didn’t use doping agents. Kinda’ like Bill Clinton saying that he didn’t have sex [meaning coitus] with Monica Lewinsky.

  7. Corvus illustris says

    “This is why I am increasingly disenchanted with professional sports.”

    Not to get off subject, but mutate a few mutanda and everything you have said can be applied to US college-branded semiprofessional–oops, sorry, major-university varsity foot- and basketball-and things are not too good already.

  8. mnb0 says

    There is more to it.
    1. The Tour de France is incredibly demanding. It’s hardly possible to ride the whole thing without special preparations, let alone to win it. And the line between legal preparation and doping is simply invisible.
    2. The public – including me – wants the Tour de France to be that demanding. We want to see our heroes suffer and preferably suffer badly. That’s why we admire them. The combination with 1 obviously results in a downward spiral. It’s more likely to draw a square circle than to organize a clean Tour de France.
    So I am a bit surprised about the disenchantment. It always has been that way. I am convinced that all the great cyclists used doping and got away with it. For this I refer to the Dutch cyclists Peter Winnen, Peter Rooks and Maarten Ducrot.
    3. The pro’s using doping leads to amateurs using doping. This I know from a former colleague from mine, who was an amateur cyclist. The result is a threat for public health.
    So we have a very complicated problem here. I don’t know a solution.

  9. left0ver1under says

    The claim that “the athletes can choose to do drugs or not” is farcical. Drugs are pushed onto them by coaches, competitors, and especially by their own eyes: if they don’t use, they won’t win, they can never be competitive.

    It’s the same story with concussions in football. The players are misled (read: flat out lied to) about the effects of concussions. In some cases, team “doctors” are told to lie to the player, to tell them they don’t have a concussion (or pretend it is less than it is) to get them to play. And as above with drugs, the concussed players know that if they don’t play, they’ll get cut (and lose money if they are pros). Witness recent comments by Jim McMahon as well as others saying they were not told the truth about concussions and their long term effects.

  10. Greg P. says

    Cycling is precisely a sport where riders are (or at least were) forced to engage in doping just to be competitive.

    Also, if you believe Tyler Hamilton’s and Betsy Andreu’s accounts, Lance Armstrong was doping before he got cancer, and simply picked up where he left off once he returned to cycling post-cancer.

    The Festina scandal is widely seen as a big watershed for doping in cycling. In reality, it seems that it only had two significant effects: a) it shifted the responsibility for doping from the team to the individual rider (the stakes were too high if the team was busted for possession) and b) it put the French teams at a serious disadvantage because France enacted tough criminal anti-doping laws, whereas countries like Italy and Spain did not.

  11. slc1 says

    One of the most amusing things about the doping scandals is the demand that Barry Bonds be stricken from the record books because he was a doper. This neglects the fact that he was hitting against pitchers who were also doping up.

  12. left0ver1under says

    One possible answer to drug use is regular and random testing, and I’m not talking about the pretend “random tests” that go on now. I’m talking about “roll up your sleeve and pee into this” tests that come without notice, and can happen anywhere at any time, even walking down the street. If an “athlete” wants to compete for money at the highest level, the person should forfeit that part of their right to privacy. They’re already celebrities, so it’s not as if they don’t expect to be tested.

    The USOC tells its athletes when the “random tests” will happen, that’s not random. And even when Americans test positive, the USOC often covers it up. I’d heard of Americans who get caught at international events and claim to be “victims of conspiracy” or that their positive tests were “unfair”. Carl Lewis was as dirty as Ben Johnson.

    The scumbag who helped Marion Jones cheat claims 60% of olympic “athletes” are cheating. I’d say he’s underestimating it, that it’s probably closer to 90%.

    The fact is in sport, winning isn’t enough in most sports. People don’t watch to see a gold medal in the olympics, they go to see world records being set. People don’t watch baseball to see sinker balls and sacrifice fly RBIs, they go to watch strikeouts and home runs. Records are what sells and attracts advertisers, and without them no one will watch.

    The claim that those running the sports are trying to stop drugs is ludicrous. The IOC only tries to catch the careless, so it can pretend to be catching “all the dirty competitors”. Major League Baseball catches the careless, but in reality they encourage drug use by wanting more records, more “incentive clauses” in contracts.

    When records and money drive the sport, drug cheating is inevitable. As far as I’m concerned, every top level athlete is dirty in some way.

  13. says

    Allow it and it becomes just another game for the wealthy. Which it already is. Nobody who doesn’t have serious money behind them has a ghost of a chance of playing at the high levels. Like F-1. Woot. Whatever.

    The solution is:
    – don’t buy products based on star endorsements
    – don’t pay attention to sport ads/sport product placements
    – don’t pay to attend sporting events

    Take the money out of sport and you’ll remove the economic niche that parasites like Armstrong evolve to live in.

  14. says

    2. The public – including me – wants the Tour de France to be that demanding. We want to see our heroes suffer and preferably suffer badly.

    Speak for yourself, please. This part of “the public” doesn’t give a fuck about any of that and thinks that anyone who does is at least slightly disturbed. Do you also tune in for the car crashes in nascar and the occasional bayonettings or wwII slaughter specials?

  15. says

    And what if Lance Armstrong was the greatest cyclist in the world and the biggest cheat?

    We know the latter, and can wonder about the former. Knowledge trumps speculation, though. So we know the guy was a lying hypocritical douchebag who may have been a good bicyclist. Nice legacy, Lance.

  16. kraut says

    “allowing doping would enable only those with the biggest budgets to be successful.”

    And what is wrong with that? Pro sports has absolutely nothing to do with sports, but everything with showbiz and raking in as much dough as possible, for the owners and the players. Fuck the pro athletes – or actually they themselves already do a fine job of that, take care that amateur sports stays clean and deny competition to anybody caught there.

    I used to play amateur soccer and field hockey, but pro sports was completely unattractive to me. Why the desire to watch that shit?

  17. kraut says

    PS – anybody who buys tickets for pro sports, or buys products endorsed by those shills helps to promote further drug use in pro sports.
    Think about that. Cut the funding off buy refusing to watch and the thing will wither away. But, isn’t it nice to have gladiators?

  18. says

    Doping is increasingly safer and also harder to detect.

    I see no reason why it should be banned. Medicinal advances help athletes, doping is no different. No, I am not advocating it being unregulated, just for it to be legal. Alchohol is legal, but it is regulated. No reason why PEDs should not follow suit. Gene doping, the next frontier is upon us. Not only will it be safer, but will help humans.

    So the rich will be to afford it more than the poor. Already the case. Look at the countries that win because they are rich (or at least spend heavily on sports).

    It levels the playing field so that winning the Tour de France will mean something instead of “no winners in the years Armstrong won it”

    “In the end, the choice is a simple one. Who would you prefer to see winning the Tour de France: the greatest cyclist in the world or the dope-cheat with the biggest budget?”

    I would like to see the cyclist who wins it be handed the trophy. When they vacate Armstrong’s wins the cheat will be gone.

    Who was the winner?

    Barry Bonds is the HR king, right? No, so who holds the single season record?

    Doping is the modern day equivalent of a hip-replacement, or a metal plate in your forearm — a benefit of modern medicine.

    Can doping harm you?


    As can overdoing your practice session, your training, your form, your technique.

    So work towards exercising caution. Punish unauthorized dispensing of controlled substances, but do make it legal.

  19. says

    And what is wrong with that? Pro sports has absolutely nothing to do with sports, but everything with showbiz and raking in as much dough as possible, for the owners and the players.

    Only that eventually it becomes a misnomer. Like “professional wrestling” which eventually became “wrestling entertainment” pro “sports” should just be called “entertainment.” Personally, pro sports affects me about as much as sunspot activity in Alpha Centauri, except for the rare occasions when I’m stuck unavoidably in its presence and can’t just take a nap and ignore it.

    I’ve always found it fascinating that people can get excited about how someone else that they don’t know performs in a competition. There’s got to be some fascinating stuff going on in their brains, that it works that way.

  20. jamessweet says

    I don’t think this is at all crazy. I am not 100% convinced, but certainly there is room for it here. As I mentioned in my original comment, in some sports, some drugs typically associated with performance-enhancement may actually make players safer with proper usage.

    We are already asking our athletes to push their bodies to a dangerous degree. Now, unlike our dear trollish friend kraut who commented above, I don’t make the mental error of saying, “Welp, we’ve already got problem X, might as well make it worse!” But we do have to face the possibility that, if we are going to ask athletes to perform at a particular level, judicious use of certain currently-prohibited substances may actually be a safer/healthier way of reaching those levels of performance than what we currently ask of them.

  21. kraut says

    interesting that voicing opposing opinions is considered “trollish”. But I guess that you get this on a website where tribal loyalties rank higher that free discussion.

    The problem is “pro – sports” and its existence. Unless you eliminate the monetary aspect from it, you will get cheating on large scale, as you will get cheating on large scale with any capitalist enterprise.
    Rules and regulations are there to be broken, morals and ethics be damned. Western societies are build on the basis of competitive wealth creation, and cheating will necessarily happen to gain a competitive edge.
    Sports business is no exception, and I see no problem to have them engage in all the doping you want, if it is made legal it might actually lead to better medical supervision of the process and safer applications.
    The problem I have to admit will occur when amateur pursue their sport to gain access to the pro – world.

  22. mnb0 says

    If you don’t watch the Tour you don’t belong to the public, smart guy. If you do watch it and expect a clean fight you’re more naive than Snow White three seconds after she was born.
    What’s Nascar? If you mean something like F-1, yeah, only the crashes are interesting. I always hope everybody survives unharmed. So you’re talking out of a certain bottom part of your body.
    See also James Sweet below.

  23. Corvus illustris says

    “The problem I have to admit will occur when amateur[s] pursue their sport to gain access to the pro–world.”

    But this is the problem we already face in the US, where nominally-amateur major intercollegiate athletics are already de facto semi-professional and are assumed to be the gateway to careers in professional sports. The universities are corrupt, and–in a case of which I have personal knowledge–support for genuinely amateur sports like crew and fencing is cut off so that more can go to the big-time (sometime) money-makers. Hence my concern about a lassiez-faire position in professional sports.

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