To dope or not to dope, that is the question
Lance Armstrong has both energised and tarnished US Cycling - can it continue to grow? (AP Photo/Franck Prevel, File)
Doping scandals have plagued professional sports for as long as I can remember, and in the past decade have come close to dominating sports media at times.
Newspapers, sports and health magazines, broadcast news media, online news, and even the occasional front-page story condemn the use of performance enhancing drugs in professional sports. But why?
I don’t ask this because I am in favor of their use; I just don’t see a clear, logical argument in either direction.
I remain undecided on the issue and very disappointed in professional sports organisations that jump to punish athletes that are convicted, or in some cases merely suspected of using performance enhancing drugs.
I admit that I am writing this as a response to what I have been reading lately in the news about Lance Armstrong. He is not particularly a hero to me, I know very little about him, however I wonder about the purpose of stripping seven Tour de France victories from an obviously very gifted athlete, with or without drugs, in order to send a message.
The man won seven times. He did not come out of obscurity and win something that his previous or subsequent performances would call into question. He won something for which he was always considered a contender.
In other words, he did not take a pill and become a super human overnight to win a race; his training made him a super human. If drugs are used in the course of training with the purpose of enhancing an athlete’s performance, how is that any different from the incorporation of any other technology for the same purpose?
So we arrive back at the initial question: why are performance enhancing drugs “bad” in professional sports?
In order to get at an answer, first we need to ask what is the purpose or goal of professional sports for the individual professional athlete? There is an association between athletics and health and often this is the assumed purpose of athletics, to help an individual get or be healthy.
It is important here to draw a line between professional, amateur and recreational athletics. I am a recreational runner – I run upwards of a dozen or so races per year typically between about April and October – mostly half and full marathons.
That’s close to two races per month during my race “season” – and I know individuals who do far more than that. My half marathon times are typically between 1:30 and 1:45 while my marathon times are between 3:45 and 4:00 – admittedly I’m far from the most competitive runner on the course. I just like to run; it’s healthy.
Contrast my performance to that of a professional male marathoner: a half marathon time around 1:00 and a marathon time between 2:00 and 2:15. That dances around a five-minute per mile average speed.
A typical professional marathoner will only run a couple of marathons a year. Why? Because their body is trashed after running 26.2 miles at a five minutes per mile pace and they need the time to recover. Their performance is mind-blowing, but the results are hardly “healthy” by any stretch of the imagination.
Also consider the aftermath of a single professional rugby match, American football game, or boxing match. Consider the results of a career in professional rugby, American football, or boxing. Consider everything having to do with professional power-lifting. Most will agree that there is no way, by any definition, that a 300+ lbs female or 400+ lbs male power-lifter that can lift her or his own weight is “healthy”.
That is not to say that their accomplishments and performance are not staggering; their dedication and strength are just as mind blowing as the super endurance of a professional marathoner. Nor is this to say that professional athletes are not healthy, just that health is not necessarily the highest priority.
I would argue, then, that the purpose and goal of the professional athlete tends toward performance over health while the goal of the recreational athlete tends to be health more than performance. Amateur athletes fall somewhere in the middle range of that spectrum.
This makes the stigma against performance enhancing drugs in professional sports all the more perplexing.
Perhaps performance enhancing drugs give an athlete an unfair advantage? This assumes that there is differential access by professional athletes to performance enhancing drugs, some can’t get them while others can. This is not true. As the media and the scandals are showing most, if not all, professional athletes have access to such drugs.
Do these drugs give a major boost to the user over other athletes? If so, then why is it so difficult to identify athletes that use the drugs from their performances? No drug can turn an individual into a world-class athlete. Only when incorporated into the total training regime do they offer an “edge”, not a leap.
That is the same reason why so many varied technologies are incorporated into the training and performance analysis of professional athletes. Each training tool contributes an “edge” and all those tools together have the possibility of turning a talented individual into a world-class athlete.
Consider advances in medical knowledge and technology. Training routines, warm-ups, cool-downs, recovery and injury prevention methods, specific exercises to target different movements or ranges of motion—all are based on the scientific understanding of human physiology.
Consider advances in engineering and mechanical technology. These account for the entire sport of cycling and new improvements on these technologies come out yearly. Electronic shifting is becoming more common and wireless electronic braking is being developed at a German university.
Twenty years ago carbon frame bikes were not frequently encountered; now they are commonplace. And where would companies like Nike, Brooks, Asics, Saucony, New Balance, and Solomon, to name a few, be without the technology that goes into athletic footwear?
Consider advances in computers and electronics. Analysis programs are routinely used to quantify an athlete’s performance and determine necessary alterations to training, or are used during training to track and indicate various performance thresholds such as heart rate, speed, distance, changes in terrain, or to see normally imperceptible variations in repetitive movements that inherently do not have a high tolerance for variation such as pitching, jumping, passing, hitting, foot strike, etc.
I watched a documentary several years ago where scientists at a university used sensors placed in strategic places on the body of an American rodeo roper to create a simplified stick model of the roper and analyse their technique relative to a computerised optimum.
By analysing the variation between the human roper and the computer generated optimum the roper was able to see exactly how they needed to alter and develop their technique in order to gain that performance edge. Such analytic technology has been used in a wide range of sports.
Consider advances in textiles. Speedo’s “shark skin” swimsuits, competitive swimwear that utilises special materials as well as directionality and orientation of those materials in construction to reduce drag and promote correct form in the pool, gave a competitive edge to swimmers after they were released and approved for competition.
Also the development of compression clothing – clothes that compress major muscle groups in certain directions to optimize muscle efficiency and reduce energy loss – have been used to increase performance and speed recovery.
Professional athletics readily incorporates any advancement that may provide a competitive edge to an athlete… except advances in performance enhancing pharmaceuticals.
The rejection of pharmaceutical advancements while other technologies are readily accepted establishes a Catch 22 with two opposing conditions.
Condition 1: an athlete must perform at the highest level possible. Condition 2: The athlete is condemned for using certain ingested or injected chemical substances that allow them to meet the first condition but applauded for the application of any other technology that encourages such performance.
So then, why are performance enhancing drugs illegal? Because it’s cheating. But why is it cheating? Because it’s against the rules. Oh, of course, but why is it against the rules? Because it’s cheating.
Ummm… Does this seem like we’re going in a circle to anyone else? That I can see, there is no logical reason behind the professional athletic rejection of performance enhancing drugs.
In the end, I still wonder why? Why are performance enhancing drugs anathema to professional athletics? Why are athletes punished formally for their use and punished informally by stigma and public alienation when use is alleged or suspected?
Why is an athlete who is convicted of performance enhancing drug use suddenly not given credit or magically no longer responsible for their accomplishments? Drugs or no drugs, Mark McGuire hit 70 home runs during the 1998 Major League Baseball season – and I guarantee that he trained at least as hard as the competition and a lot harder than his critics.
In the end, performance enhancing drugs, legal or not, seem to be another tool in the training kit of professional athletes. The edge that an athlete gets from their use is only beneficial if they are using all the other tools in the box to their full extent.
Unfortunately, regardless of what Hollywood may have us believe, there is no drug that will turn a Steve Rogers into a Captain America, a Bruce Banner into the Hulk, or a Dr. Jekyll into a Mr. Hyde. Performance will always be a comprehensive result of all the tools being used together with the highest performance being achieved by the most skillful application of the most tools.
While I really can’t speak for anyone else, to the McGuires and the Armstrongs in the crowd I still want to say, simply, I’m sorry. I feel for you. While I won’t ever be using performance enhancing drugs myself and don’t really know how I feel about their use, I understand why you may have.
And to the professional athletic associations I urge: either accept and regulate performance enhancers or come up with a logical reason for rejecting them.
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