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Let drugs enhance Olympic performances

The Games are all about ‘performance enhancement’, so why not let athletes dope up to achieve greatness?

Viv Regan

Topics World

You would think the extraordinary lengths athletes go to in order to get anywhere near a medal couldn’t fail to inspire. Yet still there lurks a foul suspicion and distrust among the burgeoning sports bureaucracy about any really outstanding athletic achievement. Spawned by a regulatory mindset, these bureaucrats appear hellbent on controlling contestants’ behaviour, in particular any drugs they take. The suspicion aimed at sportspeople who take drugs is unforgiving, as doping allegations made against Chinese swimming sensation Ye Shiwen showed.

But, as our WORLDbytes crew found when producing our latest report, Dope-ocracy: An Olympian Pill Panic, this is a moral crusade based primarily on fiction. This is despite the fact that the British Olympic Association (BOA) has a phoneline dedicated to reporting doping during the Olympics and GlaxoSmithKline has spent $31million on testing the London Olympians and set up a 24-hour drug-testing operation. As Dr Michael Fitzpatrick said in an interview for our programme: ‘To be a competitive athlete requires a higher level of surveillance than if you have actually been convicted of a criminal offence.’

Visitors to London during the 2012 Games have even been treated with anti-doping art. Doping Thrower, an art installation by Fabrica’s artist Erik Ravelo, takes centre stage at a London exhibition. It was inspired by Myron’s Discobolus, a 445 BC sculpture, synonymous with the athleticism of the Olympic Games. This time, however, he is covered with pills. It is intended as a warning that athletes may be winning by chemical enhancement rather than by merit alone.

Ravelo is clearly not alone in his condemnation of drug-taking in sports and a belief that such activity is morally wrong. Millions of pounds have been invested in laboratories to test athletes and uncover ‘cheats’, and yet it appears there has been little-to-no investigation into the actual effects of banned drugs. In our report, Professor Sam Shuster explains: ‘All the drugs that have been used have certain effects – if you like, micro-effects… It’s been assumed from that that you can extrapolate into whole-body effects, and that’s a fatal mistake…To show an effect you need a double-blind, randomised, controlled study of that endpoint – the winning. None of the drugs presumed to work in sport have been tested that way…This disproportion between detection and effect tells you the story. They aren’t interested in effect.’

Of course, many argue that taking drugs provides an unfair advantage on an otherwise level playing field. Yet sportspeople already use teams of coaches, embark on expensive training programmes and invest in specialised equipment for competitive advantage. Take the use of EPO, a hormone that increases the number of red blood cells in your body, and therefore the amount of oxygen your blood can carry. Sportsmen train at high altitudes to increase their red blood cells or sleep in a tent with low oxygen. As Professor Shuster points out: ‘The only reason you’re going up a mountain, the only reason you’re living in a hyperbaric tent, is to increase EPO. Why not just buy it? It’s cheaper.’

If ‘level playing fields’ are the issue, then why single out drugs? This may partly be due to sport taking on a bigger role in morally regulating our lives. As traditional ways of regulating our behaviour fail, sportsmen and women are put on pedestals and held up as role models. There is also a perverted idea that sport is, or should be, a ‘natural’ activity. However, as Dr Fitzpatrick says: ‘When you think about it, sport is a highly unnatural activity. It is about humans attempting to enhance nature. The whole history of sport is the constant advance of what human beings are capable of – both individually and collectively.’

Through making our report, we have been persuaded that there is nothing wrong in taking a drug intentionally in the hope of enhancing your performance. That, after all, is what winning is all about. To run faster, jump higher or be stronger than the rest takes dedication, hard work, talent and the best technology available. There seems to be little reason why drugs should not be part of this. As Professor Shuster argues: ‘If you take sports training, you do far more crazy things than you ever do with taking drugs. You get a sports psychologist to bend your mind; you get a dietician to bend your gut. All these things are acceptable, but a nice clean pill isn’t.’

Ultimately, as Dr Fitzpatrick points out, it should be the athletes’ call: ‘Athletes are inclined to push their performance to a level which may cause damage to their health. But that’s something that athletes themselves have to take responsibility for. It’s not something which the state or sporting authorities can take control over.’

The anti-doping brigade’s policing role is not just irrational, it also destroys lives. This is something Dr Fitzpatrick emphasises: ‘People say that it’s like wearing an electronic tag, but it’s actually worse than wearing an electronic tag. It’s not only your presence in a particular area that is policed, but it’s your activities 24/7 in every aspect of your life that are policed in a way that is not expected of a citizen in any other area of life. This is an extraordinary level of infringement on people’s liberties purely because they want to participate in sport. People are banned from activities; people are banned in a way in which they wouldn’t for any other criminal activity, not just for a short period, but for life.’

Hopefully the activities of the dope-ocracy won’t destroy more careers during these Games. We hope our programme will provide something of an antidote to their anti-human message. We need to kick the moral regulators out of sport, and support future Olympians in their attempt to ‘enhance nature’ and do what it takes to win.

Watch Dope-ocracy: An Olympian Pill Panic below:

Viv Regan is co-director of the charity WORLDwrite and Citizen TV station WORLDbytes.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World

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