To Juice or Not to Juice?

Journalists float the idea of legalizing sports doping

Point shaving, dog fighting, blood doping - it was enough to make some columnists posit that the last week of July was the “worst sports week ever.”

The sins, though, are not created equal. Nobody in his right mind would suggest that we allow referees to tamper with the scoreboard, or quarterbacks to abuse animals. But sanction the use of performance-enhancing drugs? Sure, why not? In fact, it’s a “shockingly fashionable” opinion among sports writers, according to Gwen Knapp, longtime sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, the paper that has led coverage of the Balco doping scandal over the last five years. “Actually, that may be a bit too strong,” Knapp quickly added. Nonetheless, it is clear that the legalization of sports doping is not anathema among journalists.

On the heels of the latest Tour de France drug scandal, three articles have raised the idea in the last week alone. The most surprising was an editorial in the scientific journal Nature, which predicted, “By the end of this century the unenhanced body or mind may well be vanishingly rare.” Although the journal’s editors called cheating “loathsome” - and insisted that as long as performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals are banned, the athletes that use them should be punished - they suggested a change in the rules might not be a bad thing.

In 2003, the federal government’s prosecution of Balco, a sports medicine and nutrition center in northern California that provided illicit substances to athletes, was a turning point for journalists. Before that, the press relied primarily on well-informed conjecture and anecdotal evidence about the prevalence of doping, and the investigation finally gave them conclusive proof. “Only the naive or willfully ignorant did not seem to understand that drug use has been widespread for many years in elite sport,” wrote Jere Longman in 2004 for The New York Times. “The latest unfolding of the Balco scandal, even if it is the largest in American sports history, has brought more confirmation than astonishment about doping.”

Although the Balco case shattered the illusion of athletes’ purity, the public - increasingly fond of over-the-counter weight gainers and dietary supplements - had, to some extent, already inoculated itself against the scandal. “At a time when testosterone and human growth hormone are promoted to the public as ways to maintain muscle tone, stem the aging process and invigorate sexual activity, the line between what is acceptable for the average person and what is prohibited for the athlete has blurred,” wrote Longman.

Four years down the road, that is exactly the same sentiment and logic expressed in the Nature editorial: “The more the public comes to live with the mixed and risk-related benefits of enhancement, the more it will appreciate that allowing such changes need not rob sport of its drama, nor athletes of their need for skill, training, character and dedication.”

It is also the same sentiment and logic expressed by Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist for The Washington Post, who argued last week that sports is “riddled” with drug use and has been since the Olympic contests of ancient Greece. As National Geographic put it in a recent article on the history of doping, “the desire to gain an edge over your opponents is as old as humanity.” Thus, in light of rampant abuse, Jenkins writes, “In an odd way, legalizing performance enhancers might restore some candor to what we’re watching.”

“Adults should be allowed to take risks,” wrote the editors of Nature. “If spectators are seeking to reset their body mass index through pharmacology, or taking pills that enhance their memory, is it really reasonable that athletes should make do with bodies that have not seen such benefits?”

Health risks and an unfair comparative advantage, Jenkins notes in her column, are the two most common arguments against a surrender to sports doping. But there are other considerations as well. Both Jenkins and Nature suggest that we re-examine the role of athletes in society. Are there standards that apply to them that do not apply to the general public? Are sports simply entertainment and nothing else? Perhaps the most intriguing of these questions is this: Where is the line the between natural and artificial enhancement? According to Jenkins, it’s impossible to tell any more.

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.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.