USA today on drugs in sports
- 02-01-2005, 08:44 PM
USA today on drugs in sports
What's wrong with using drugs in sports? Nothing
By Maxwell J. Mehlman
The controversy over drug use is convulsing sports. Officials at the Olympics, which officially open in Athens on Friday, are scrambling to keep their testing program one step ahead of rogue athletes and renegade chemists. Athletic careers, both professional and amateur, are being destroyed. People are going to jail.
Does this make sense?
Drugs can give competitors decisive advantages, such as athletes pole-vaulting 3 feet higher, or returning a tennis shot that used to be out of reach, or hitting a slow-pitch baseball an extra 20 yards.
But what's wrong with that? These changes took place more or less overnight when fiberglass poles, supersized tennis racquets and TechZilla bats were produced. So why do we object when the improvement is caused by a drug?
Let's review the arguments often voiced by drug critics:
Some drugs used in sports are dangerous. But many sports themselves, and the training regimens required to excel, also are dangerous. Athletes may be pressured by coaches and trainers to use dangerous drugs, but these same instructors pressure athletes to go out for the sport in the first place and to train hard, both of which risk injury.
More important, organized sports don't just embargo dangerous drugs: Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan lost her gold medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics because she took an over-the-counter cold medicine so safe that even a child can buy it at the drugstore.
Adult use of performance-enhancing drugs could influence impressionable youngsters. Clearly we must protect children from purchasing the drugs, and athletes from advertising them. And we need to explain to youngsters that there is a difference, as with alcohol, between use by an adult and a child.
But this doesn't mean that we have to ban adult use. Children can hurt themselves just by trying their hand at a sport.
As a ski patroller, I deal with lots of injured kids who "just wanted to see if they could do that flip like the guy on TV." This doesn't mean we have to eliminate freestyle skiing from the Olympics.
Drug use is unfair if only some athletes can get them. Yet most of the drugs athletes use seem to be readily available. Besides, what about the fact that only a fortunate few athletes can obtain access to the best coaches and training resources?
Those advocating drug bans argue that the benefit from drugs is unearned, the accomplishments undeserved. But winning still takes a lot of work. No one "deserves" to be born wealthy or with tremendous natural talent, yet we confer medals on athletes who have had every unearned advantage. Why not when the advantage is conferred by drugs?
If one athlete uses drugs, then other competitors will be forced to do the same. But excellence in sports comes at the price of many freedoms, from being able to sleep late in the morning to maintaining bodily integrity. If one athlete trains hard, they all must.
Sports philosophers assert that a competition that allows drugs is simply not a sport. Many forms of physical competitions permit drugs (by not testing for them) — from strongman events to pick-up basketball. These activities may not make their participants rich or capture a large share of the television audience, but they are clearly sports.
Drug use is against the rules. Breaking the rules is a serious offense, and an athlete who deliberately cheats should be punished. But we've come back to where we started: We know that drugs are against the rules. What we're trying to find out is why.
This leads to an unavoidable conclusion: There is nothing inherently wrong with athletes using relatively safe drugs. People simply find it distasteful. It offends their aesthetic sensibilities.
Make no mistake: Aesthetics are important. Our sense of aesthetics is what allows us to distinguish what is beautiful from what is ugly. It drove XFL football out of existence. But people's tastes differ. Some fans don't seem to mind steroid use by professional baseball players, for example, as long as it lets the stars hit more home runs.
Tastes change, as perhaps they will when people realize that the ultimate justification for the policy against all drugs in sports is the same reason that we get upset when the neighbors paint their house purple.
Maxwell J. Mehlman is a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
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