This is where Nature, disengaged from the sports journalist’s point of view, could have added valuable scientific perspective. Physiologically speaking, what is the difference between artificial enhancement and unlocking untapped, but natural abilities? This isn’t a question of dosage or drug regimen. As Knapp points out, proposals to legalize doping based on the rationale that it will help officials monitor and keep athletes safe are absurd. “You can’t control how much people will take, and athletes will take everything,” she said. “These people will take more than you can possibly imagine.” Unfortunately, Nature’s editorial fails to deliver. Instead of providing insights into the nature of fitness and human potential, the editors fell into the common trap of supporting their argument with inapt comparisons.
When it comes to doping, Knapp says, “There are false analogies all over the place.” And she’s quite right. Nature suggests that public opinion about enhancement may “evolve” in the same way that the once-common belief that women have no place in sports was eventually rejected. But comparing a woman’s place in athletics to steroids’ place in athletics is incredibly unsophisticated, especially for such a distinguished journal.
For her part, Jenkins compares doping to Lasik corrective eye surgery. “Is there really a difference?” she asks. This analogy strikes me as closer to the mark if one accepts that athletes should, as Nature recommends, be allowed to take any risk they want. Still, it’s a shaky comparison. For one thing, although Lasik has risks, chances are it won’t cause you to develop cancer. Also, at best the surgery can deliver eyesight that is achievable with corrective lenses, whereas performance enhancers can push the body past what is achievable with even a rigorous fitness routine.
On Monday, Slate published a “thought experiment” by science writer Dan Engber that did not advocate legalization of performance enhancers in the way that Jenkins and Nature do, but did attempt to analyze the consequences of such legalization. Engber reasoned that if doping were legalized across the board and all players were to have access to the same pharmaceuticals, “some sports might not be so different” in the long run. “In the first few years of doping you’d see some wild variations in statistics, and some awful tragedies,” he wrote. But at some point, “If every player were similarly inflated, individual stats would start to regress toward the mean.”
Another likely consequence, though, takes this debate into darker terrain.
“There is no doubt in my mind that allowing doping would filter down to the young,” says George Solomon, a former sports editor for The Washington Post. “What makes sports different from movies and other entertainment is that it’s competition with an outcome. And permitting cheating, which is what doping is, would violate that.”
As Engber suggests in Slate, well-funded professionals might have equal access to pharmaceuticals and trainers. But this is not so for young athletes. The effect would be “unbelievably elitist,” Knapp said. “Wealthy kids would go to better endocrinologists than poor kids, and we would be writing off the health of young athletes that don’t come from privileged classes.” To its credit, Nature does mention “there would need to be special protection for children” if doping were legalized, but that’s about as much concern as the journal could muster.
Fortunately, most fans and journalists still have serious reservations about sanctioning performance-enhancing drugs. But perhaps that is changing. As Barry Bonds, who has been at the center of the Balco scandal and is the subject of the book about sports doping, “Game of Shadows,” tied and then broke Hank Aaron’s all time home-run record this week, pundits expected a lot more jeering and booing than he ultimately received. Then again, with so much scandal roiling the sports world, perhaps doping is merely being eclipsed by more grievous crimes.