SBJ/November 17 - 23, 2003/Opinion

Ban drugs or not? It’s an easy call

Most college, Olympic and professional sports governing bodies ban the use of certain performance-enhancing drugs by competitive athletes. Nevertheless, recent doping scandals evidence a willingness of some elite athletes to intentionally take prohibited substances to gain a competitive edge. These athletes risk severe sanctions and shame if caught but hope their usage of prohibited substances goes undetected and facilitates a winning performance.

Why place limits on a competitive athlete's ability to maximize his or her performance through sophisticated modern chemistry? After all, the objective of sport is superior performance and winning, which appeals to spectators and provides athletes with intangible and economic rewards. The best athletes, by virtue of superior genetics and internal physiology, already have a natural advantage. Moreover, some athletes have access to better nutrition, coaching and training facilities that provide a further competitive advantage. Yet sports governing bodies make no effort to level the playing field by regulating these factors. Clearly the controlling principle of competitive sports is athletic Darwinism, not socialism.

Sports governing bodies (and teams) unquestionably may prohibit usage of illegal recreational drugs that impair athletic performance.

But how can banning substances (including those legally available) in order to limit an athlete's maximum capabilities and performance be justified? The answer is simple. The essence of sport is that all participants must play by the same rules — even though all athletes are not created equal in terms of ability. Uniform rules are necessary to measure how athletes' unevenly distributed talents and skills translate into winning and losing. The 2003 World Anti-Doping Code states "[a]nti-doping rules, like competition rules, are sport rules governing the conditions under which sport is played," which athletes must accept as a condition of participation.

An athlete's use of banned performance-enhancing substances is by definition "cheating" that destroys competitive integrity. Just as important, these substances also are prohibited because of their adverse health effects. The Anti-Doping Code provides that a prohibited substance must satisfy at least two of these three criteria: 1) it enhances or has the potential to enhance sport performance; 2) it has an actual or potential health risk; or 3) it violates the spirit of sport. None of these criteria alone is sufficient reason for banning usage. For example, the first includes legitimate and well-accepted athletic training methods such as weight training, eating large quantities of red meat or carbohydrate loading.

Clearly there are inherent risks of injury assumed by athletes in most sports; in some competitive sports such as auto racing, death may occur during the ordinary course of competition. However, athletes using prohibited substances expose themselves to additional health risks — often of unknown magnitude — because of their off-field conduct. These risks are intensified by an athlete's real or imagined perception that competitors using banned drugs are gaining an advantage, thus creating psychological pressure to level the playing field by using the same or more powerful substances. This creates a dangerous escalating cycle of doping that harms the integrity of competition and athletes' health.

Although it is impossible to put the pharmaceutical genie back in the bottle, it is imperative that the fight against doping be continued rather than abandoned (as John Genzale advocates in his Nov. 3 column). The essence of sports is competition among individual athletes or teams, not competing manufacturers of the newest synthetic chemicals designed to artificially enhance athletic performance. For strong policy reasons, athletes must comply with the rules of the game to promote doping-free sport, maintain competitive integrity and protect their health — or be penalized for foul play.

Matt Mitten is director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University Law School.

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