INHDR commentary - Loland

Is anti-doping in vain?

Is anti-doping in vain?

By Sigmund Loland, Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, Norway 

The prevalence of doping in professional cycling and in other elite sports has surprised even cynics. The king himself, Lance Armstrong, experiences what is possibly the steepest descent of his life. Several other riders, managers, support team members and sport medics of various kinds seem to follow in the undertow.

For the sport aficionado this is bad news. We are introduced to a world of denial, lies and deceit. We become witnesses to pathetic confessions made a decade too late. Honest athletes have been cheated for honor, prestige and significant sources of income. It is tempting to conclude that the disclosures demonstrate the inadequacy of the anti-doping system. Probably never in the history of sport have so many cheated for so long without being caught. Is anti-doping in vain? 

On closer thought however pessimism can pave the way for a conditional optimism. An alternative interpretation is that the disclosures can strengthen anti-doping. Below I present three reflections in this respect. 

1. Honesty pays off!

The drug scandals show a culture where dishonesty is put into system. Stories from the inside portray a culture of fear dominated by a professional rider omerta. ‘Do not under any circumstance tell the outside world about our operations!’ Moral scandals can provide insights and opportunities for learning. One insight is this: What one athlete knows may remain a secret. What two or more athletes know may gradually turn into public knowledge.

The reasons are obvious. Elite sport is more transparent than ever. Mass media is following events closely in the search for dramatic news. To an increasing degree, reports from servile sport reporters are replaced by critical, investigative journalism. The Lance-case is a good illustration. Moreover, when anti-doping agencies such as USADA keep the pressure on, gradually truth seems to emerge.

The message to athletes is clear. You may get away with doping today and tomorrow, but as long as the public and anti-doping authorities are interested in your performances, you will never be safe. In that sense, the disclosures over the last years can deter and prevent other athletes from engaging in doping. Honesty pays off.

2. A better understanding of the doping threat

The disclosures may also contribute to a better understanding of the moral questions involved in doping. One insight from the tales of EPO-use is that the substance really works. This has social and ethical implications. If EPO-use is common, group pressure arises. The stories from U. S Postal demonstrates very clearly that if an athlete wants to perform in competitions with drug using athletes, there is a strong coercive effect towards drug use.

Extensive use of biomedical performance-enhancement has implications for the way we understand performance in sport. Responsibility for performance is moved gradually from the athlete and coach towards support systems with competence in physiology and biomedicine. Athletes’ potential of freedom and self-determination is reduced.

Not only does extensive doping threaten athletes’ status as free and responsible moral agents. Usually doping implies that healthy individuals use various drugs in extensive, non-therapeutic dosages. In most cases the health risk is obvious. This may lead to problematic socialization mechanisms. What kind of attitudes and values are the results of sport systems where you are expected to take part in hidden and illegal practices that may ruin your health?

Although this is disputed, I believe that extensive doping will reduce the broad fascination for elite sport in the public. We tend to admire performances based on development of talent with hard and systematic effort. The best athletes are often associated, rightly or wrongly, with moral qualities: fairness, will power, strong motivation, the ability to perform at their best in decisive moments. Drug use changes this situation. In a contest with evenly matched competitors, drug use can be the decisive factor. In the early 1980s, sociologist Kalevi Heinilä referred to the impact of strong support systems as the hidden validity of elite sport. Drug use is part of this hidden picture. Public reactions on the latest drug scandals seem to indicate that anti-doping has support.

3. Anti-doping in the age of performance-enhancement

We can however still be sceptical when considering anti-doping in the larger scheme of things. The development of performance-enhancing biomedical technology is immense, and public attitudes to non-therapeutic use seem to change. Viagra helps in sex life, other substances can enhance mood and/or concentration, products from the anti-aging industry are moving gradually from cosmetic to genetic effects. Nobody wants to grow old, to get weaker, to become less attractive. How can anti-doping succeed in an age where performance-enhancing technologies seem to invade daily life?

Again, I hold on to conditional optimism. The development of new biotechnologies should be welcomed. If being handled with good judgment, new medicaments and methods can provide opportunities for longer and better lives. In medical settings typical doping substances such as anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) and EPO can reduce illness and save life. Indeed technology can be a blessing. 

As with all other technology however: Biotechnology applied without good judgment can be a curse. One and the same technology can be of value in one social practice and deeply problematic in another. In sport, AAS and EPO can undermine athletes’ health and their status as free and responsible moral agents.

The art of moderation

I defend the principle of anti-doping but do not necessarily argue that the anti-doping movement is always right. After fourteen years of existence time is due for an extensive and critical review of WADA’s set up, efficiency and modes of operation. The quest for control and penalties must be balanced with open discussion on values and the construction of culture.

To claim that doping scandals indicate that anti-doping is in vain, however, is mistaken. The master, Goethe says, knows the art of moderation. I read anti-doping into Goethe’s scheme. The fight against drugs in sport is supposed to open for the cultivation of sport’s key ideals and for admirable forms of human expertise. The scandals indicate that anti-doping is more important than ever.