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Posted by on Jan 25, 2013 in Philosophy, Skepticism | 4 comments

Let them have EPO!

Originally published in the Daily Maverick. Sports scientist Ross Tucker and I had a brief debate/exchange of views on this topic on CapeTalk567 on the day of publication, and you can listen to that here.


Lance Armstrong certainly lied, and by most people’s standards, acted unethically in doing so. We’ll also find broad agreement that it was an moral failing for him to retaliate against whistle-blowers, attempting to destroy credibility and careers in an effort to keep his multiple deceptions a secret.

It is likewise true that he broke the rules in taking performance-enhancing substances, and in that sense deserves whatever punishment is laid down for those rule-violations. But the rules in question are inconsistent or even incoherent, and Armstrong’s fall from grace will hopefully lead to their revision.

The problem is this: for those of us who can only admire sporting prowess from afar rather than exhibit it ourselves, the narrative of purity is a compelling one. There we see a beautifully sculpted physique, capable of feats we can only imagine, that has been nurtured and honed in order to perform those feats. Or sometimes, someone more ordinary has perfected a skill through years of dedicated effort.

In both cases, though, we can imagine the sacrifices and dedication – the purity of purpose, and the fact that they achieved these goals through natural ability, exploiting the gifts bestowed on them by nature.

The immediate problem with this, though, is that it’s a complete fabrication. Some of us will always be advantaged in some respect and others disadvantaged, and anyone’s “natural” state will already include those asymmetries. You could fill a library with books on the philosophical concept of “moral luck”, Bernard Williams’ phrase for the inconsistent ways in which we attribute praise and blame for things that might or might not be in the agent’s control.

It’s not only that you might be born into a family that has the material means to buy you a bicycle or some running shoes, or send you to training camps. Your natural advantages might rest in the fact that you grew up at high altitude, or near a beach so that you built strength by running in the sand. For every Mfuneko Ngam, whose international cricket career was (arguably) curtailed by the dietary deficiencies he experienced growing up, and which later led to frequent injuries, you could point to someone whose body developed to be stronger or faster thanks to environmental factors.

And what are performance-enhancing drugs but simply one more factor like these, available to some and not to others by virtue of nothing more than simple luck? Once we discard the illusion of the Athenian athlete, running naked save for a loincloth (perhaps alongside Bambi), it should become clear that drawing the line at drugs is as arbitrary as drawing it at any other point, and that the issue of whether or not someone broke the rules is an entirely separate one to whether the rules are sensible.

In the case of professional sport and drugs, the line-drawing currently seems to rest on a version of the naturalistic fallacy, namely the mistake of thinking that natural is good and unnatural bad. In morality, people (mistakenly) use this fallacy against homosexuality, and in medicine perhaps in support of homeopathy instead of chemotherapy (if you’ll forgive that very loose usage of the word “medicine”).

But these examples are cherry-picked, and easily refuted by pointing to cancer (natural) or the wearing of spectacles (unnatural, in that the nose and ears were not evolved for the purpose of supporting spectacles). So our moral judgements – including our attributions of praise and blame – should not rest on a conception of the natural.

What about fairness? If we are to allow drugs in professional sport, some argue, then it will be doctors who win races, rather than athletes. As I point out above, though, this is already the case – not only for doctors, who might prescribe better drugs to some of us than others while growing up, leading to healthier starts to life, but also to parents who have unequal means to support us. It’s already parents who win races, not athletes, so why not let doctors also win a few medals?

Yes, there will be some who can exploit the chemical resources better than others can, but we need a good reason to treat this sort of resource differently to any other. Currently, our reason seems to be an interpretation of the “spirit” of sport that allows for the manipulation of all sorts of parameters (diet, lifestyle, training regimen) excepting one, namely your drug intake.

Even this exception is applied inconsistently, in that it seems entirely arbitrary to say that paracetamol is permitted (as it is for Olympic athletes) and another drug not, seeing as a splitting headache would surely impact on performance in something like a game of tennis. These are matters of degree, not of kind, and operate on a spectrum ranging from whether you were breast-fed to whether you take EPO.

I would offer a similar response to those who are concerned about pressures on young athletes, who might do themselves long-term health damage through taking drugs from an early age. Again, this sort of objection doesn’t seem to operate in the real world, where professional athletes already do themselves significant damage through obsessive training at a young age. We need to account for the possibility that taking drugs would allow for fewer, not more, cases of retired 35 year-olds’ with various permanent aches and pains thanks to aptitude for some professional sport.

The drugs will only get better the more we are allowed to take them. They will also get cheaper, and safer, if the user-base is expanded. And just as technologies at the high end of motorsport make our road cards safer, perhaps the non-athlete will also benefit from improved medication at the end of the day.

But first, we need to recognise that professional sport is not pure, and never has been. More importantly, we need to recognise that one sort of corrupting influence might not be as easily distinguishable from another as we might think, or hope. Within the lifetimes of most of us, biological enhancements will most likely be the norm, and it will be even clearer that our obsession with some sort of pastoral narrative in sport is increasingly naïve.

Tiger Woods is allowed to compete after having laser surgery that by some accounts left his eyesight at 20/15, compared to the normal 20/20, which would mean that he could see at 20 feet what a normal person could see at 15 feet. Golf returns to the Olympics in 2016, and I’ve heard nothing suggesting that he (and many others) will be disqualified, even though this would surely advantage him on the golf course.

Thinking ahead: if corrective eye surgery of this sort is permitted, as is the wearing of contact lenses to make your vision 20/15 or even 20/10, as for baseball’s Mark McGwire, what will we do when our poor vision can be corrected through the replacement of the eye with something off a robotics assembly line? Or would we just claim that that’s somehow “different”, and ignore all the ways in which sport is already not the pure contest we imagine it to be?

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