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What if we let athletes do whatever they wanted to excel?

Before you dismiss this notion, consider what we’re stuck with today. The system is ostensibly designed to create a level playing field, protect athletes’ health and set an example for children, but it fails on all counts.

The journal Nature, in an editorial in the current issue, complains that “antidoping authorities have fostered a sporting culture of suspicion, secrecy and fear” by relying on unscientifically calibrated tests, like the unreliable test for synthetic testosterone that cost Floyd Landis his 2006 Tour de France victory. Even if the authorities manage to correct their tests, they can’t possibly keep up with the accelerating advances in biology. Some athletes are already considering new drugs like Aicar and GW1516, which made news recently when researchers at the Salk Institute used them to quickly turn couch-potato mice into treadmill champions with new, strong muscles.

“There’s a possibility that athletes in this Olympics will be using these drugs,” said Ronald Evans, the leader of the team at Salk, who has been fending off inquiries from athletes about these drugs. He has advised the antidoping authorities on how to detect these drugs, but whether they’ll be able do it competently this Olympics is far from clear.

The authorities will have even less of a chance of catching athletes who move beyond drugs and hormones to “gene doping” — inserting genes in their DNA that could increase strength and endurance without leaving telltale chemicals in the bloodstream.
In the British Medical Journal last month, more than 30 scholars signed a statement supporting an article co-authored by Dr. Kayser calling the current system a failure that needs to be changed. The article also criticized the medical authorities for undermining their credibility with “prophylactic lies” that exaggerate the dangers of drugs like anabolic steroids based “on scant evidence tainted by a misguided moralistic motivation to protect sports.”

No one denies that there are risks in taking drugs like anabolic steroids, and there is wide agreement that minors shouldn’t be allowed to take them (or other performance drugs). But the popular fear of steroid use by adults is based in large part on a few sensationalized cases, like the news articles blaming steroids for the fatal brain tumor of Lyle Alzado, the former football player.

“You’d be on firmer scientific ground blaming his brain cancer on beer drinking,” said Norman Fost, a professor of pediatrics and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin. “The claims of the common fatal or irreversible harms of anabolic steroids are without any medical foundation. There’s no reason to think the risk of injury or death is as high as the risk from simply playing sports like football or baseball.”