Should performance enhancing drugs (such as steroids) be accepted in sports?
The PRO and CON statements below give a five minute introduction to the debate over performance enhancing drugs in sports. (Read more information about our one star to five star Theoretical Expertise System.)
PRO: "If each of us ought to be free to assume risks that we think are worth taking, shouldn't athletes have the same freedom as anyone else? In particular, if athletes prefer the gains in performance allegedly provided by the use of steroids, along with the increased risk of harm to the alternative of less risk and worse performance, what gives anyone the right to interfere with their choice? After all, if we should not forbid smokers from risking their health by smoking, why should we prohibit track stars or weightlifters from taking risks with their health in pursuit of their goals?"
Robert Simon, PhD
Professor of Philosophy at Hamilton College
Fair Play: The Ethics of Sport
CON: "Performance enhancers, like steroids and other forms of doping, have a negative effect on long-term health. For then users of these enhancers are hurting themselves in the long run without on the average improving their short-term rewards from athletic competition, as long as competitors also use harmful enhancers. This is the main rationale for trying to ban steroids and other forms of doping from athletic competitions."
Gary Becker, PhD
Professor in the Departments of Economics, Sociology, and the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago "Doping in Sports," Becker-Posner blog
Aug. 27, 2006
PRO: "There is no coherent argument to support the view that enhancing performance is unfair; if it were, we would ban coaching and training. Competition can be unfair if there is unequal access to particular enhancements, but equal access can be achieved more predictably by deregulation than by prohibition."
Norman Fost, MD, MPH
Professor and Director of the Medical Ethics Program at the University of Wisconsin
"Steroid Hysteria: Unpacking the Claims," American Medical Association Journal of Ethics
CON:"Remember that athletes don't take these drugs to level the playing field, they do it to get an advantage. And if everyone else is doing what they're doing, then instead of taking 10 grams or 10 cc's or whatever it is, they'll take 20 or 30 or 40, and a vicious circle simply gets bigger. The end game will be an activity that is increasingly violent, extreme, and meaningless, practiced by a class of chemical and or genetic mutant gladiators. The use of performance-enhancing drugs is not accidental; it is planned and deliberate with the sole objective of getting an unfair advantage."
Richard Pound, BCL
Former President of the World Anti-Doping Agency
Intelligence Squared US debate titled "We Should Accept Performance-Enhancing Drugs in Competitive Sports," moderated by Bob Costas
Jan. 15, 2008
PRO: "Sport is for enjoyment and competition, and usually aims to improve; but what is the difference between increasing skill and performance by training, and taking drugs? If it is the use of personal effort rather than outside help, then what of ropes, crampons and oxygen for climbing? What of advanced training by teams of sports physiologists who wire athletes to equipment monitoring heart, muscle, brain and nerves to optimise activity; or teams of sports psychologists improving your responses and neutralising those observed in competitors? What of dieticians tampering with foods and additives - drugs by any other name - to improve performance?
What is more 'fair' - the use of a team of sports specialists or a simple pill? What is the difference between training at altitude and taking erythropoietin to achieve a similar effect? And why are the strips of adhesive plaster on the nose - absurdly believed to increase oxygen intake - more acceptable than a drug which reduces airway resistance?"
Sam Shuster, PhD
Emeritus Professor of Dermatology at Newcastle University
"There's No Proof That Sports Drugs Enhance Performance," The Guardian Aug. 4, 2006
CON: "When used by fully trained, elite athletes, [performance-enhancing] drugs can improve performance to a much greater extent than any combination of the most intensive, sophisticated, and costly nonpharmaceutical interventions known to modern sports science. Scientifically based training regimens, special diets, and complex physiological and biomechanical measurements during exercise and recovery cannot match the enhancing effects of drugs... Thus, drug use in a subgroup of athletes who -- even in the absence of drugs -- are able to compete at an elite level causes their separation into a distinct athletic population, distanced from 'natural' humans by a margin determined by the potency of the drug combinations that are used."
Timothy Noakes, MD, DSc
Discovery Health Professor of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of Cape Town
"Tainted Glory," New England Journal of Medicine
Aug. 26, 2004
PRO: "Why should we think that those who take drugs to remain competitive with the drug users are coerced into doing so? No one is forced to become a competitive athlete. The pressures that the non-drug users may well feel are no different than any other pressures that come with committing oneself to playing the game at a relatively high level of competition. If some athletes spend much more time in the weight room than others and thereby build their muscular strength to levels significantly higher than their opponents, those opponents who want to remain competitive may feel compelled to also put in more time with weights. But there is nothing unethical or immoral about the situation that should lead those interested in maintaining sportsmanship to forbid or severely regulate weight training..."
Peter A. French, PhD
Director of the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University
Ethics and College Sports
CON: "One athlete's decision to use performance enhancing drugs also exerts a powerful effect on the other athletes in the competition. As reported by Sports Illustrated, half of all recently surveyed Olympic athletes admitted that they would be willing to take a drug -- even if it would kill them eventually -- as long as it would let them win every event they entered five years in a row. This type of 'win at any cost' mentality is pervading sports at all levels of competition and results in athletes feeling coerced to use substances just to remain on par with other athletes."
PRO: "According to the IOC [International Olympic Committee] director general... the fact that only eight athletes out of 11,000 Olympic competitors tested positive is proof that 'the war on doping is being won.' But the argument that the small number of athletes testing positive is indicative of the low prevalence of doping is nonsense.
The number of positive tests is an extremely poor indicator of the prevalence of doping... There is general recognition among those involved in elite level sport that those testing positive represent only the tip of the iceberg. It is impossible to estimate precisely how big that iceberg is, but it is clearly very large...
Firstly, drug-using athletes often beat tests because they have access to specialized medical advice from sports physicians... Secondly, there is evidence of collusion between dope-using athletes and senior officials. Positive tests have been 'lost' at several Olympics."
Ivan Waddington, PhD
Visiting Professor at the University of Chester and the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences "Olympic Tests for Drugs Need a Shot of Candor," International Herald Tribune
Oct. 4, 2000
CON: "The detection methods are accurate and reliable. They undergo rigorous validation prior to being introduced... WADA is, of course, keenly interested in the efficiency, as well as the effectiveness, of the global anti-doping system and supports research to help enhance testing efficiency...
Working collaboratively with national anti-doping agencies such as the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in the sharing of information has uncovered the designer steroid THG, and WADA-certified laboratories continue to keep a watchful eye for previously unknown doping agents...
The I.O.C. retains ownership of the athlete's samples (blood and urine) for eight years following the Olympic Games... During the ensuing eight years, if a technique is developed that would enable the detection of a prohibited substance... the stored specimen could be tested for that specific substance and the athlete would be held accountable."
Gary I. Wadler, MD Chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) Prohibited List and Methods Sub-Committee
"Dr. Gary Wadler of the World Anti-Doping Agency Gives His Answers to Your Questions (Part I)," New York Times June 26, 2008
PRO: "We believe that rather than drive doping underground, use of drugs should be permitted under medical supervision.
Legalisation of the use of drugs in sport might even have some advantages. The boundary between the therapeutic and ergogenic - i.e., performance enhancing - use of drugs is blurred at present and poses difficult questions for the controlling bodies of antidoping practice and for sports doctors. The antidoping rules often lead to complicated and costly administrative and medical follow-up to ascertain whether drugs taken by athletes are legitimate therapeutic agents or illicit.
Furthernore, legalisation of doping, we believe, would encourage more sensible, informed use of drugs in amateur sport, leading to an overall decline in the rate of health problems associated with doping. Finally, by allowing medically supervised doping, the drugs used could be assessed for a clearer view of what is dangerous and what is not...
Acknowledging the importance of rules in sports, which might include the prohibition of doping, is, in itself, not problematic. However, a problem arises when the application of these rules is beset with diminishing returns: escalating costs and questionable effectiveness."
Bengt Kayser, MD, PhD
Professor of Exercise Physiology, Faculty of Medicine of the University of Geneva Alexandre Mauron, PhD
Professor of Bioethics, Faculty of Medicine of the University of Geneva Andy Miah, PhD
Reader in New Media and Bioethics at the School of Media, Language, and Music at the University of the West of Scotland
"Viewpoint: Legalisation of Performance-Enhancing Drugs," The Lancet
CON: "There are several reasons to ban performance-enhancing drugs: respect for the rules of sports, recognition that natural talents and their perfection are the point of sports, and the prospect of an 'arms race' in athletic performance...
The rules in each sport in effect determine which characteristics among all possible sources of difference influence who wins and who loses...
Rules are changed at times to preserve a sport. Basketball banned goaltending—swatting the ball away just as it was about to go into the hoop—when players became so tall and athletic that they could stand by the basket and prevent most shots from having a chance to go in...
Sports that revere records and historical comparisons (think of baseball and home runs) would become unmoored by drug-aided athletes obliterating old standards. Athletes, caught in the sport arms race, would be pressed to take more and more drugs, in ever wilder combinations and at increasingly higher doses...
The drug race in sport has the potential to create a slow-motion public health catastrophe. Finally, we may lose whatever is most graceful, beautiful, and admirable about sport..."
Thomas H. Murray, PhD
President of the Hastings Center
"Sports Enhancement," chapter in From Birth to Death and Bench to Clinic: The Hastings Center Bioethics Briefing Book for Journalists, Policymakers, and Campaigns
PRO: "How, exactly, does the spirit of sport forbid gene transfer but not carbo-loading? The [WADA] code doesn't say. It defines the spirit of sport as 'ethics,' 'fair play,' 'character' and a bunch of other words that clarify nothing. The definition includes 'courage' and 'dedication.' Doesn't it take more courage and dedication to alter your genes than to snarf a potato? Human growth hormone appears on WADA's 'Prohibited List' of substances and methods, even though the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists have vouched, to varying degrees, for its safety. Evidently growth hormone violates the spirit of sport, but stuffing yourself with steaks doesn't."
Journalist for the Washington Post
"How High Is Too High in Turin?," Washington Post
Feb. 19, 2006
CON: "Anti-doping programs seek to preserve what is intrinsically valuable about sport. This intrinsic value is often referred to as 'the spirit of sport'; it is the essence of Olympism; it is how we play true. The spirit of sport is the celebration of the human spirit, body and mind, and is characterized by the following values:
Ethics, fair play and honesty.
Excellence in performance.
Character and education.
Fun and joy.
Dedication and commitment.
Respect for rules and laws.
Respect for self and other participants.
Community and solidarity.
Doping is fundamentally contrary to the spirit of sport."
PRO: "Survey data actually shows that teen steroid use has mirrored the use of other illicit drugs over the years. It went up mildly in the 1990's, and has since either dropped off slightly, or leveled off since 2000. It's likely that the same trends that govern cocaine or marijuana use govern teen steroid use far more than what's happening in the sports pages. In fact, a study released last year, and one of the few studies to actually attempt to find out what motivates teen boys to take steroids, found that the most reliable indicator of steroid use was a teen's own self, self esteem and body image. The suggestion, and I think we can all agree it's pretty intuitive, is that teenage boys who do take steroids do so not because they want to look like Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire, but because they want to look good for teenage girls."
Senior Editor of Reason magazine
Intelligence Squared US debate titled "We Should Accept Performance-Enhancing Drugs in Competitive Sports," moderated by Bob Costas
Jan. 15, 2008
CON: "For many male high school athletes, pro athletes are major influences. They are the role models. They choose the jersey numbers of their favorite professional players. They emulate their training regimens. They emulate their style of play. And they are influenced by their drug use. When a professional athlete admits to using steroids, the message young athletes hear is not always the one that is intended. Young athletes often believe that steroid use by their role models gives them permission to use. That it is simply part of what one must do to become an elite athlete."
Testimony for the hearing "Steroid Use in Professional Baseball and Anti-Doping Issues in Amateur Sports" before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs, Foreign Commerce, and Tourism
June 18, 2002
PRO: "In America's major league sports, particularly football and baseball, the widespread perception of drug use does not seem to have had a negative impact on audience interest. The fascination of watching Mark McGwire break the home-run record in 1998 was undiminished by his overt use of nandrolone (not a banned substance in baseball), which stimulates the body to produce more of its own steroids.
And do spectators believe that the number of US football players weighing 300lb, which has risen from 10 in 1986 to more than 300 today, is solely through muscle build-up achieved by eating the concentrated protein contained in egg whites? The estimate of a former professional is that at least 30% of US major-league football players are taking steroids; most people say that the figure is much higher. Fans are not put off by this, and players say they would trade a longer life for a chance of glory."
Lincoln Allison, DLitt
Founder of the Centre for the Study of Sport in Society at Warwick University
"Faster, Stronger, Higher," The Guardian
Aug. 9, 2004
CON: "To the extent that the public perceives that a PED [performance enhancing drug] reduces the role of skill and replaces it by chemically induced brute strength and endurance, it is likely to lose interest in the sports in which it is used. The harm would be primarily financial, but this in turn could lead to the demise of professional leagues and contests...
Sporting events would increasingly become tests of rivals' access to good pharmaceutical technology and knowledge and their bodies' ability to use these chemicals efficiently.
Even though skill, strategy, and effort would still play a central role in athletic success, pharmaceutical technology and athletes' bodily responses to it would also play a significant role. It is not that people are not interested in science fairs; it is just that people expect sport to be a different kind of test, one in which athletes' own qualities are the major determinants of success."
Nicholas J. Dixon, PhD
Chair and Dykstra Professor of Philosophy at Alma College
"Performance-Enhancing Drugs, Paternalism, Meritocracy, and Harm to Sport," Journal of Social Philosophy
May 27, 2008
PRO: "Let's stop pretending that the Baseball Hall of Fame is a real-life fantasy world -- a place where we celebrate only the people and events we can all unanimously agree deserve to be celebrated -- and transform it into an institution that reflects both the good and bad of the sport. Wait -- wasn't that Cooperstown's mission all along? Shouldn't it be a place where someone who knows nothing about baseball can learn about its rich history? Isn't it a museum, after all?
If that's the case -- and I say it is -- then how can we leave out Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader and most memorable competitor of his era? And how can we even consider leaving out McGwire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, the three most memorable hitters of the 1990s? We're supposed to stick our heads in the historical sand and pretend these people were never born?"
Columnist for ESPN
"A Hall of Justice," ESPN The Magazine
Jan. 15, 2007
CON: "It doesn't matter whether the player's production, either home runs or hits, was drug enhanced once, twice or ten times. It doesn't matter; it's still cheating and impugning the integrity of the game and the player's accomplishments... Those great players currently enshrined in the Hall of Fame achieved that honor strictly on the merits of their god-given talents and not by utilizing artificial means to enhance their accomplishments.
The game has been tarnished by steroid charges, and the issue of enshrinement in baseball's Hall of Fame of players who have used steroids, regardless of their career statistics, is a critical issue that may well impact the standards and integrity of the Hall of Fame itself."
Former General Manager of the Boston Red Sox
High and Inside: My Life in the Front Offices of Baseball