Is it time to legalise Doping?

Updated: Jul 10, 2018

Following the Russian Doping Scandal, Lance Armstrong, Maria Sharapova, Justin Gatlin and other high-profile athletes, the topic of doping is dominating sport and poses a significant threat to its integrity. However, once we accept the fact that doping has always been a part of sport and that it may be impossible to completely eradicate, is it time to consider the idea of legalising doping?

The History of Doping

Doping has existed in one way or another for as long as the Olympic Games have, stretching as far back as 776 BC. The term ‘doping’ stems from ‘doop’; a drug used by the Ancient Greeks to enhance their sporting performance at a time when doping and match fixing was considered acceptable. The first rules against doping in sport were made as late as 1928, when the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) banned doping for all of their athletes. Since then, improved procedures and technology to test performance-enhancing substances, it seems, have been successful in exposing athletes who choose to dope. However, recent findings suggest that only 1 in 30 athletes are ever caught in a doping test, even though many go through hundreds within their lifetime. Lance Armstrong took an estimated 500-600 tests, all of which were concluded to be clean. According to Icarus, the Oscar-nominated documentary, Armstrong was only caught as a result of his teammates choosing to testify against the cyclist.

Athletes have been doping to gain an advantage for as long as competitive sport has existed, with only a small percentage ever being found out. It’s incredible to think of how many medals have been awarded to athletes, teams and nations who have been involved in doping, right under our noses, without us having a clue. I think the reason that we find this truth so upsetting is because sport is meant to provide an even playing field for all athletes and that it unites people in the common interest of sharing a fair and honest competition. It seems to me however, that if our reason for not tolerating doping is the desire to make sport fair, then maybe we need to consider the prospect of legalising doping.

Doping scandals are rife within the sport of cycling

Cycling is a sport often associated with doping.

Could doping make Sports Fairer?

The argument surrounding the fairness of sport goes beyond doping. In recent years we’ve seen the reputation of athletes being challenged because they are simply genetically superior or more naturally talented than others. There are also complaints that more economically developed nations also have a clear advantage over others. Just a few days ago, a BBC pundit covering the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang complained about the unfair advantage other nations had over Great Britain due to the availability of funding and world-class facilities. So in the inherently unfair world of sport, could the accessibility and affordability of performance-enhancing drugs close the gap?

The problem with doping is that it brings morality in to question. The general consensus is that doping challenges the core values of sport, but how is it any different to an athlete taking advantage of pioneering training and recovery techniques, or performance-related technologies to gain an advantage? The use of Hypoxic Air Tents for example, is considered legal in many sports. Athletes can use them to increase haematocrit levels, which in turn increases the oxygen carrying capacity in your blood. This boosts the production of red blood cells, much in the same way as the banned drug erythropoietin (EPO) does. This type of equipment, like a lot of ‘legal’ performance-enhancing techniques and technologies, is expensive and therefore only available to those who can afford it.

While sport often drills down to natural ability, many athletes wouldn’t have been as successful if they didn’t have significant resource dedicated to their development. Even with clean athletes, the idea of sporting equality is slightly warped as there is a clear correlation between sporting success and how much of a nation’s wealth is dedicated to it. British Cycling’s growth over the past 18 years is a prime example of this. Since 2000 and the Sydney Olympics, British Cycling has seen its funding increase from £5.4 million to over £30 million for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. These investments have resulted in 24 state-of-the-art facilities and the creation of world-leading performance programmes for elite athletes. The knock-on effect is for all to see, with the Olympic and Paralympic cycling teams going from winning 2 Gold, 2 Silver and 4 Bronze in 2000 to 18 Gold, 6 Silver and 8 Bronze in 2016. Given the influence that investment tends to have on performance, we can safely say that inequality in sport inherently exists. Wealthier nations can invest much more in sport to help athletes push their bodies to world-beating standards. The idea that an anti-doping stance preserves the fairness of sport is clearly inaccurate, and doping could be viewed as just another tool to maximise the abilities of an athlete.

The fact that performance enhancing drugs are widely available and affordable (in relative terms to legal performance enhancing techniques and technology) could mean that less economically developed nations are able to achieve results on par with their wealthier adversaries. Whilst this is an interesting concept it’s perhaps a ‘two wrongs doesn’t make a right’ argument, and we should be looking at eliminating financial factors in sport instead. The risk that an open-door policy to doping may pose is a trickle-down effect to grassroots whereby a lack of education and substance abuse could lead to wider arguments around the safety of athletes.

There is a concern of doping negatively influencing participants at grassroots level.

Could Doping make Sports Safer?

Outside of the sporting world, the moral stance on drug use is changing to make it safer. Take Portugal for example, who 17 years ago decriminalised drug use and now records just 3 drug overdose deaths for every 1m citizens, the second lowest of any European country. Given that Portugal has had such success, there is no reason why this logic couldn’t be applied to the sporting world. However, there is one crucial difference between recreational and sporting drug use; the element of competition and the value that sporting success holds. The fact that athletes are taking drugs to gain a competitive advantage means that they are likely to push their bodies beyond what are considered natural limits. This is a very different motivation to regular drug use, whereby athletes become reliant on drugs to retain a certain level of performance

Although, just because athletes take drugs in the interest of competition, this does not mean that all drug-use could not be safe. In Julian Savulescu’s ‘A Doping Manifesto’, he positions ‘safe doping’ in a scenario whereby athletes are tested for physiological values (e.g. testosterone and haematocrit) rather than the variety of banned substances. The benchmark for a pass or fail would then become what are deemed safe levels of these physiological values. Sauvlescu’s theory does hit a grey-patch as he explains ‘dangerous’ substances would still be outlawed. Who makes the decision between which drugs are considered safe and which are considered dangerous is another thing. Having said that, this could provide a doping culture with safety at the forefront, in contrast to the current anti-doping culture where only 2% of dirty athletes are caught, and are potentially greatly harming their bodies.

However, regardless of what medical professionals deem to be ‘safe’, there is also a risk of the unknown that comes with doping. Not enough is known about the extent to which the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs damages the body. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has produced a list of health issues associated with doping, discussing the most common substances and the myths surrounding them, suggesting that doping always poses health risks. Given the amount of uncertainty around drug use for sporting purposes, a significant amount of expertise and resource is required to ensure the athlete is protected and remains healthy. Reverting to my previous point of inequality in sport, it is clear those at the top are the ones who will benefit the most, as someone like Lance Armstrong had a team of staff dedicated to helping him perform at his best with the least possible health risks. At grassroots level however, there is little control over who takes what, how they take it and how much they take. The lack of information could be incredibly dangerous and pose serious risks to the athletes involved. Given that safety is a crucial factor for a sport to be universally popular, incidents resulting from doping could create dire consequences for participation levels. We are already seeing concerns over health come to the fore in many sports including American Football players and the health problems that come with concussions, as well as concerns on children heading the ball in football, and the age-long debate about boxing and brain damage to name a few. If doping becomes common practice is it likely that it will be next on the list?

We don't yet know the long term effects of doping.

Another important concern is that those who choose to compete without any performance-enhancing substances are left with the dilemma of either taking drugs or give up on their sporting aspirations. This is an ethical problem that seems extremely unfair on clean athletes, as doping will always pose certain health risks, and the option should not be to either risk one’s health or give up a lifelong dream of competing.

The Future of Sport

The biggest threat that the legalisation of doping holds is the complete loss of the sports industry’s integrity. People’s love for sport derives from the idea that anything is possible; that people from all backgrounds and cultures can become sporting stars, and that underdogs can upset the elite. If doping becomes public knowledge, and common practice, we face the potential of complete disillusionment with sport. Considering its power to do good, I think we can all agree that this is a risk that sport simply cannot afford to take, but what is the solution to its oldest vice?

Keep an eye out for the second part of our doping special to find out.