Olympians on steroids are just giving the people what they want.

hockeyusa.jpg Credit: Adam Waliczek

The ongoing campaign against the use of anabolic steroids and performance-enhancing drugs by elite athletes has been characterized by numerous moral and medical claims that are incoherent, hypocritical or false. There is also a corollary set of concerns involving issues that are not clearly moral—questions about the essence of sport and competition, and whether athletic performance that is enhanced by scientific research is less inspiring, or undermines our admiration. Part of this concern reflects nostalgia for amateurism (“love of the thing”) or an ideal of humans competing based on purely natural attributes. Like the moral concerns, I think these concerns are naive and in some ways empirically false.

Elite athletes compete to win, and—in the modern era—to earn fame and money. Since the first Greek runner put on shoes, they have tried almost anything to enhance their performance and help them win. The litany of drugs, devices and diets used to achieve these ends is endless.

Take these four athletes and their means of enhancing performance: Athlete “A” trains at high altitudes to improve the oxygen-carrying capacity of his blood; “B” sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber to achieve the same ends; “C” transfuses himself with his own stored blood shortly before the race; and “D” injects a naturally occurring chemical (say, erythropoietin). All are seeking the same thing—to achieve the best possible performance—through the same physiological mechanism. Athletes A & B are not considered to be cheating; C & D, meanwhile, are vilified and banned from competition.

Furthermore, evidence does not support the claim that fans care greatly about which practices athletes use, or that public interest in—or appreciation of—sports will be diminished if athletes try to enhance their performance. Spectator interest in almost all sports has remained steadfast, notwithstanding widespread and growing awareness of the use of science’s numerous enhancements. To choose just one sport, baseball’s biggest attractions of the past 10 years have been the home-run battle between Mark McGwire (who openly used androstenedione, a testosterone precursor) and Sammy Sosa in 1998, and the effort of Barry Bonds, who has essentially confessed to taking drugs, at eclipsing McGwire’s record. If Bonds returns healthy next year, he may continue to be the biggest draw in US sports, depending primarily on whether he hits home runs. Like the Nike ad said, “chicks”—and guys—“love the long ball” and they don’t seem to care which of the numerous performance-enhancing means were used to get it done. A walk-off home run is inspiring to virtually everyone with an interest in the sport, however it came about.

A typical American football game regularly places players in situations more likely to cause death or permanent disability than steroid use.

The notion that the health of the athlete is paramount, often put forward by those advocating a ban on steroids, ignores reality. We allow competent adults to jeopardize their own health and life in exchange for various benefits, including joining the Army, skiing on the advanced slope and playing football. A typical American football game regularly places players in situations more likely to cause death or permanent disability than steroid use would. In the US, autonomy is valued above nearly all else. We generally frown upon restrictions of liberty that are based on the paternalistic claim that it’s in the person’s interest to be restricted. In the case of the steroid debate, this claim is as disingenuous and hypocritical as the other major moral claims. It is remarkable that the commissioner of the National Hockey League, which initiated a steroid-testing program in 2005, can be taken seriously when he speaks of “health risks posed by the use of prohibited performance enhancing substances,” even as teams employ known “enforcers” to deliver debilitating blows to opponents, and players are lightly fined for activity that would constitute criminal assault outside the arena.

As the spectator’s gaze turns to Torino, those of us who yearn for something closer to the ideal of amateurism see sports as something we do just for the love of the thing. We weekend warriors—who want to win, too—play mainly for the sheer pleasure of it, to stay fit and to develop or maintain social relationships. But when we shift from players to spectators, we want our team to win, or at least to dazzle us with their skills, which, in virtually all cases, are the consequence of an uncertain mixture of natural ability, character and science.

Norman Fost is Professor of Pediatrics and director of the program in Medical Ethics at the University of Wisconsin.

Originally published February 21, 2006


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