Should we allow doping in professional cycling?

“Back in Austin and just laying’ around…” – Lance Armstrong

Doping is described as a form of human enhancement that allows an athlete to perform beyond the limitations of humans’ normal species functioning.  Evidence shows that doping in sport has been around since the Roman Gladiators and Ancient Greeks used stimulants and performance enhancing drugs to help prevent fatigue and injury.  In professional cycling performance enhancing drugs has become as prevalent as ever, and it seems like we are fighting a losing battle.  Should we simply allow it?  Should professionals like Lance Armstrong have their titles reinstated?

Many individuals that support the use of PEDs in sport are defending the unofficial 7-time Tour De France Champion because of the notion that all competitors were doping.  The argument that PEDs should be considered ‘fair play’ as long as most athletes use them.  Teddy Cutler of recently conducted a study on what is referred to as the “EPO Era”, from 1998-2013.  In this 16 year span, Cutler found that 12 of the 16 Tour De France races were won by confirmed dopers.  Also, 65% of all riders in the top 10 from ’98-’13 were either caught doping, admitted to doping, or had strong associations with doping.  In regard to Lance’s case, during the 7-year period when Lance won (1999-2005), 87% of the top ten finishers (61 of 70) were labeled guilty for doping!  But, it’s worth noting that Lance took doping to an entirely new dimension, and as a result, forced the other top competitors to follow suit.  Many argue that his domination over his competitors was due to doping methods that no other top cyclist had ever seen before.  This created a snowball effect that has led us to the PED epidemic we see today.

Therefore, it seems that the notion of ‘fair play’ as an argument against the use of PEDs seems to be null and void.  But what does it mean to actually play fair?  Bernard Suits describes it as the “…attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goals], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude].”  So Suits believes that a sport is only played fairly if its competitors are abiding by the rules set in place that inherently make the sport challenging.  Every competitor should have the exact same chance to excel.  But, if doping was allowed in cycling we are essentially permitting more efficient means to less efficient means.  The reason why we play/watch golf is because the rules make it so challenging, so if you allow golfers to carry the ball to the hole they are no longer playing golf.  Thus, doping allows an athlete to achieve performance levels that otherwise wouldn’t be attainable, and therefore, has obtained an unfair advantage that allows a more efficient means to competing.

The argument of fair play is not the only one against the use of PEDs.  True naysayers to PEDs maintain that we play/watch sports for the intrinsic value that they hold.  Heather Reid says that “Athletes and spectators alike are drawn to competition by the prospect of learning or proving something.  The athletes want to learn about themselves and their competitors, the spectators want to learn what will happen when men and women challenge themselves and each other on the field of competition.”  We compete not only to stay fit, but for the pursuit of perfection that encompasses the whole person.  Its about the dedication, skill, and training it takes in order to master a certain skill set.  Its about the satisfaction and glory received from using your skills to defeat an opponent on a level playing field – no excuses.  Allowing doping diminishes this inherent fact in sports because of the multiplicity of PEDs, processes, and techniques that would destroy the level playing field.  Suddenly, losing to a competitor who had access to a new PED that you didn’t becomes less discouraging because the race was not fair.  Therefore, maintaining a level playing field in a PED permitted race would be extremely difficult.  The race is no longer about the pursuit to cycling greatness, no longer about defeating competitors with the exact same chance to excel, and no longer about bettering yourself as both a cyclist and a person.  The race becomes a pursuit of fame and fortune, and every reason why you got into the sport in the first place is disregarded.  Even though Lance Armstrong may not completely see it in this light, he now knows there was something very wrong with his actions.

We’d like to believe that all athletes think in this regard, but in reality, not everything is rainbows and unicorns – facts are facts.  And the fact the matter is, we are losing the war on drugs in sport.

Urine samples and blood testing are expensive, and are significantly losing effectiveness.  Masking drugs that can be purchased anywhere on the internet are outsmarting current testing methods, and are advancing at an alarming rate.  Cases continue to rise in all forms of sport, from professional athletes all the way down to high school athletes.  In order to combat the issue of ineffective testing programs, WADA was formed in 2004 – to provide the world’s sporting arenas with athletes who are clean.  Despite WADA’s increased testing and scientific advances to detect more sophisticated substances, anti-doping programs continue to fail!  WADA conducts around 250,000 tests annually (an increase of 100,000 since its formation), and yet there is still no statistical improvement in the number of positive cases identified.  Angel Heredia, a former drug supplier to Marion Jones, said there are drugs that can make anything invisible.  There are pills that can block the metabolites of steroids resulting in a negative test result, there are oral chemicals that can be take before an event to prevent acidification in the muscles etc.  This makes WADA’s job about as easy as finding a diamond in a junkyard.  Not to mention that the cost of a doping control test is in the range of $700 per athlete, so increasing testing isn’t exactly financially feasible.  As a result, WADA has had to turn to other methods of catching dopers.  A whistleblower website is being created where anyone can leave anonymous information to be investigated.  They were also given “the power of investigation” which allows them to obtain information in real time in order to deliver sanctions much faster.  Blood tests and urine samples are simply too time consuming and costly, but whistleblowing alone is not going to solve the war on PEDs.  Sanctioning bodies continue to lose this battle as more and more masking drugs and techniques are developed to defy control tests.

If we can’t eliminate performance enhancing drugs in cycling, the race is no longer fair.  If the race is no longer fair, there is no longer strong competition.  If there’s no longer strong competition, winning loses its value and prestige.  So should we simply allow PEDs in the attempt to restore the level playing field?  Or should we continue to fight the war on PEDs with innovative tactics and punishments?  Professional cyclists are always going strive for that reduction in their drag coefficient or that extra watt of power, so doping in cycling is a never-ending battle that will continue to advance in the future.  Sanctioning bodies need to either come up with a more aggressive strategy to pinpoint dopers, or simply allow it.

Additional Reading:
Lance Armstrong’s response to allegations in 2012

Possible solutions to stop doping

Why we play sports

Boxhill, Jan. “The Moral Significance of Sport.” University of North Carolina. 2001.   Web. Sept. 16.

Corlett, J. Angelo, Vincent Brown Jr, and Kiersten Kirkland. “Coping With Doping.”   Journal of the                 philosophy sport. 8 Nov. 2012. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.

Hurka, Thomas. “Games and the Good.” University of Toronto. Web. Oct 3.

Reid, Heather L. “Athletic Competition as Socratic Philosophy.” Morningside College.  Sept. 2005.  Web. 3 Oct. 2015.

Suits, Bernard. “The Grasshopper.” University of Toronto Press. 1978. Web. Oct. 3.

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