High on ill-founded anxiety

Anti-doping programmes have been around for years,but the world of sports is no closer to a level-playing field

Written by ANDY MIAH | Published: August 26, 2013 4:05 am

Anti-doping programmes have been around for years,but the world of sports is no closer to a level-playing field

After a month of more doping revelations and a new IAAF four-year-ban rule,it is time to question the endgame of the whole anti-doping project. Born out of anxiety about athletes dying in the field of play,anti-doping remains a project led by medical doctors and like-minded advocates who don’t approve of using medical technologies for non-essential purposes.

Yet,the world is moving on and leaving the 20th century ethos of sport behind. We now live in a world of human enhancement and body modification. Soon,nobody will care what athletes are doing to enhance themselves,especially if the general population is already doing it.

Rigorous anti-doping programmes have been around for half a century,but the world of sport is no closer to a level-playing field now than it was when anti-doping began. The cheats continue to outwit the testers and manage to distort sporting history,making a mockery of major international competitions. Spectators can no longer watch a final and presume that the result was brought about in fair competition. While authorities may claim to have caught them in the end,this is simply not good enough. Either they are caught in advance,or sports competitions are made to look foolish.

So why are we so bothered about doping anyway? Why does it matter so much that an athlete used some unheard-of substance? We don’t mind when an athlete benefits from scientific knowledge,such as what foods to eat when and how much rest to take to optimise performance. Athletes can even use things like laser eye surgery to improve themselves.

What is the difference between these applications of scientific knowledge and others that lead to the creation of a pharmaceutical substance or genetic transfer? It can’t just be that the latter are more risky. If it were,then we would presumably have a clear sense of what level of risk is acceptable in sport — and society in general. But we don’t. In many sports,the rate of injuries brought about by just participating at all might preclude their very existence,if risk were our sole concern.

It can’t even be the fact that sport science is designed for sport,while drugs are not,since much of the insight for athletes comes from other domains,such as the military. It can’t be fairness,either,else we could simply allow access to all doping for all people. This way,competitors would at least share a kind of fairness,even if they all respond differently to different enhancements.

It’s hard not to conclude that our anxieties about doping in sport are ill-founded. As athletes reach their biological limits,they need technology to push back those limits and continue breaking records. This is why we need something like a World Pro-Doping Agency as well as the existing World Anti-Doping Agency. If we don’t task some organisation with the role of discovering safer forms of performance enhancement in sport,athletes will always be at risk and the problem of doping will never go away. Moreover,they will always resort to black markets for their enhancements. If it were all out in the open,at least sports could monitor the risk and steer athletes towards the safer forms of enhancements. What’s more,we could all sit back and watch sports safe in the knowledge that we know exactly what an athlete has done to earn their medal.

This is probably never going to happen. When you consider the range of legal weight behind anti-doping around the world,it is inconceivable that everyone would suddenly stop fighting this losing battle. However,I wonder what happens to the child of two genetically modified parents who,as a result,happens to be more enhanced for sports. This person will have not cheated; they will have just been born especially gifted. It is such examples that will cause the world of sport no end of problems in due course.

Further,there are examples of human enhancement that have not been banned by sports,such as altitude chambers that improve endurance. I suspect that the future of sport will give rise to many more enhancements like this,rather than what we presently call doping and,as they grow in number,so too will our disinterest in an ill-conceived war that is no longer worth fighting.

Miah,professor in ethics and emerging technologies at the University of the West of Scotland,is author of ‘Genetically Modified Athletes: Biomedical Ethics,Gene Doping and Sport’

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