Where do we draw the line on performance enhancing drugs?

Obviously, everyone today is talking about Arod, PEDs, etc. I am going to have more to say about this, but while I am getting ready for work, I wanted to post something here that I originally wrote in 2006 – and that I am still stuck on, namely whether there is a line that makes sense in determining what athletes should be allowed to do to their bodies, and what they shouldn’t.

The context was the positive drug test that the cyclist Floyd Landis (remember him?!) had just registered, prompting William Rhoden and Pat Forde to express dismay about how we could no longer trust anything we see in sports.

Here’s an excerpt:

As I’ve written before, I have real doubts about whether it makes sense to ban performance enhancing drugs. It’s not clear to me that we’ve drawn the line of acceptability in a way that stands up logically. Athletes engage in all sorts of practices all the time – from sweating out weight before a wrestling match, to engaging in training that might seriously inhibit the normal maturation process of female gymnasts’ bodies to playing a brutal game like football in 100 degree heat in full pads when doing so increases the risk of heat stroke – that clearly and significantly endanger their health (August 6, 2013 – not to mention the severe impact of head injuries themselves). And, I am not yet convinced that there’s proof that the things we do ban, and call cheating, are more dangerous, on average, than the things we accept.

Rhoden and Forde’s laments, reflecting the sentiments, no doubt, of countless sports fans, are understandable. But, they may well be based on an ultimately untenable premise – that the spirit of sport is violated by certain types of practices that might be physically risky but likely improve short term performance, but not other types of practices that may be physically risky but likely improve short term performance.

Of course, you can argue that wherever the line should be and however arbitrarily we make the distinctions we do, if there are rules in place, you have to follow them – that playing by the rules is a basic part of the sporting enterprise. But as this article about the difference between anabolic steroids and human growth hormone suggests, the distinctions themselves are not necessarily based on verifiable science or any other coherent criteria.

Update: I should have mentioned that this post is partly in response to what has been, is, and will continue to be incessant and cheap moralizing about who is good and who is bad in sports. Sally Jenkins noted that something about the antipathy toward Arod has always been “excessive to the point of disturbing.” She quotes the baseball writer Joe Posnanski that Arod gives his most intense detractors “guilt-free hate.”

No better example of cheap moralizing exists at the moment than Ian O’Connor, who wrote a blistering attack for ESPN yesterday declaring that Rodriguez, we must assume, has been using performance enhancing drugs since his first day in the major leagues and is fond of condemning the “cheats and frauds and chemically-enhanced fakes.” To reiterate, if you’ve broken the rules, you should serve the appropriate penalties. But has O’Connor have spent a moment to consider what chemical-enhancement means in a world in which elite athletes are all putting chemicals of various sorts in their bodies all the time (as is much of the rest of the American public)?

Update the second: Craig Calcaterra rightly dings O’Connor’s sense of entitlement when O’Connor complains that Arod wasn’t sufficiently forthcoming with the media at his press conference before last night’s game. Calceterra:

“Yes, clearly, it’s far more important for him to go on record with the cameras and reporters than it is to do so at an upcoming binding arbitration which holds his career and tens of millions of dollars in the balance.  It’s critical that O’Connor get a chance to hear A-Rod say something that O’Connor is 100% unwilling to believe no matter what it is than it is to keep from saying things in public that could later be used against him during his appeal.

Do people hear themselves with this stuff? Do they actually believe it?”

Update (August 7): Via Wages of Wins, a Scientific American podcast arguing that the war on PEDs is ultimately futile, since the science is generally too far ahead of the testing. An interesting note: the IOC has apparently shifted its focus increasingly to intelligence gathering and information because it doesn’t think its testing works. In other words, investigations like Biogenesis might increasingly be the basis for policing such use. WoW’s Devin Dignam has argued that the fight against PEDs is not merely futile, but actively counterproductive.

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