Last updated on: 10/4/2023 | Author:

Sports “ain’t never been clean,” says Charles Yesalis, former Pennsylvania State University professor and long-time performance-enhancing drug researcher.

And by “never,” Yesalis means never. Research suggests that the first Olympians were openly doping. “The ancient Olympic champions were professionals who competed for huge cash prizes as well as olive wreaths, lived on the public dole and were sometimes recruited by competing cities seeking status. Most forms of what we would call cheating were perfectly acceptable to them, save for game-fixing. There is evidence that they gorged themselves on meat — not a normal dietary staple of the Greeks — and experimented with herbal medications in an effort to enhance their performances,” explains sports journalist Sally Jenkins. Read more history…

Pro & Con Arguments

Pro 1

PED use is so prevalent that banning it only disadvantages those not doping and hinders the forward progress of sport.

“But everyone else is doing it” might not be an argument a teenager is going to win with a parent, but in the case of professional athletes and PEDs, the argument is one that the sporting world should accept.

As sports editor Matt Glover explains, “Some might argue that performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) are cheating or unfair. I beg to differ. I believe it would truly even the playing field because some countries (like Russia …) already are doping, while clean athletes are punished for being clean. There is a prisoners’ dilemma for athletes, with the dominant strategy being to cheat. This penalizes those who have the moral character or fortitude to not cheat, while rewarding others who did cheat.” [7]

“The solution,” Glover asserts, “is not more draconian testing policies, but rather an abolition of these policies and a level playing field where athletes are able to make informed decisions about their bodies. This would ensure all athletes that wanted to use PEDs could, rather than those that can circumvent testing either with new drugs or through sheer luck (as not all athletes are tested).” [7]

The “spirit of sport” evolves in tandem with the evolution of the actual sports and society at large. Torbjörn Tännsjö, professor of practical philosophy at Stockholm University, notes that paying athletes was once considered highly problematic. Sport evolved to pay athletes for their talents, and it can similarly evolve to allow PEDs, because as Tännsjö concludes, there is no overriding “moral virtue” in “exhibiting natural strength.” [8]

Glorifying “natural” playing in sports only encourages more injuries and, thus, short careers. This hinders the advancement of sport and competition.

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Pro 2

PEDs help athletes to recover from injuries and to endure the rigors of sport.

Professional athletes are almost guaranteed to be injured at some point during their career. A 2021 survey found 62.5 injuries per 100 players in the MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL from 2007 through 2019. While a similar study of women’s professional sports injuries was not available, on average, female athletes are prone to even more injuries because of anatomical differences like wider pelvises and weaker knees. [9] [10]

Quite a few drugs, including steroids and growth hormone, that are regularly banned by sports organizations are useful medical treatments, especially for sports injury recovery.

Research is showing that short-term anabolic androgenic steroid use during surgery may help people recover after ACL (the anterior cruciate ligament that stabilizes the knee) surgery and total joint replacement surgery (in which a human joint is replaced with a prosthesis). The drugs may also “augment the biological healing environment” for muscle injuries, fractures, and rotator cuff repair. In other words, though many PEDs, such as anabolic steroids, have gotten a “renegade” reputation, there are some with useful, “ethical clinical applications.” [11] [12]

“If an [athlete’s] injury is severe enough to sideline a patient for a month or so, there’s a good chance that there will be long-term consequences of that injury that will extend many years, sometimes decades, into their later life. In patients with ACL tears, for example, even after surgery and rehab, muscles in their injured leg are often around 30 percent weaker than they were before the injury. Over time, this weakness slowly erodes the cartilage in the knee. My lab is currently investigating the possibility that growth hormone — a banned substance by WADA — could help address this weakness in an FDA-approved clinical trial,” explains Christopher Mendias, assistant professor at the University of Michigan. [13]

Mendias asserts that, unlike the popular news stories of unscrupulous medical drug dealers, “the vast majority of sports medicine clinicians and researchers are interested in finding ways to help restore injured athletes back to their pre-injury levels and not to engage in therapies that give athletes advantages that go above and beyond what they could achieve through approved training techniques and practices.” [13]

“If a player can reach his full fitness level two to three weeks faster, then [PED use] makes sense. It’s not about players being brought up to 120, 150 or even 180 per cent [of their previous capacity and skill level]. It’s about getting players to their usual level as soon as possible,” argues Bernd Schuster, a former German professional footballer. [14]

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Pro 3

PEDs can be regulated and safely used.

Professional athletes are adults who deserve bodily autonomy, meaning the right to do with their own bodies as they choose. Banning PEDs, which are otherwise legal drugs, treats adult athletes like children. [15]

“It’s time to head in the opposite direction: legalizing performance enhancing drugs (PEDs)…. If steroid use for professional athletes is permitted, they will be able to legally obtain physical enhancement drugs which have been regulated, and are therefore possibly safe to use,” says columnist Maeve Juday. [16]

“We do not want an Olympics in which people die before, during, or after competition,” from taking banned drugs, say professors Julian Savulescu, Bennett Foddy, and M. Clayton. “What matters is health and fitness to compete. Rather than testing for drugs, we should focus more on health and fitness to compete.” [17]

“We should permit drugs that are safe and continue to ban and monitor drugs that are unsafe. There is another argument for this policy based on fairness: provided that a drug is safe, it is unfair to the honest athletes that they have to miss out on an advantage that the cheaters enjoy,” the three professors argue. “Far from harming athletes, paradoxically, such a proposal may protect our athletes. There would be more rigorous and regular evaluation of an athlete’s health and fitness to perform. Moreover, the current incentive is to develop undetectable drugs, with little concern for safety. If safe performance enhancement drugs were permitted, there would be greater pressure to develop safe drugs. Drugs would tend to become safer.” [17]

Further, the treatment of medical conditions would not be stigmatized and private medical conditions would not have to be divulged publicly because the treatment is a “banned” drug. For example, “if an archer requires β [beta] blockers to treat heart disease, we should not be concerned that this will give him or her an advantage over other archers. Or if an anaemic cyclist wants to take EPO [erythropoietin], we should be most concerned with the treatment of the anaemia.” Ultimately, taking a health-centered approach, rather than a prohibitive approach to drugs, will safeguard the athletes, and thus the sport. [17]

The same applies to so-called “techno-doping.” As journalist and bioethicist Alex Pearlman explains, “Supporters of using enhancing technologies in sports counter that people with disabilities already rely on increasingly high-tech assistive devices in everyday life. They point out that enhancements would not worsen an already inherently unjust situation. On the contrary—more attention to assistive devices might have the fringe benefit of going a long way toward alleviating ableist supremacy and getting more technology to people who need it.” [6]

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Con 1

PEDs violate the spirit and integrity of sport.

“Sports are designed to test a specific cluster of skills and capacities, including physical, psychological, tactical and technical abilities. Performance-enhancing drugs elevate the importance of certain physical attributes, such as strength and stamina. Lifting the ban on drugs would alter the nature of sports by increasing the significance of this sub-set of physical attributes at the expense of other physical attributes, such as coordination and agility, as well as non-physical attributes such as strategic skill, mental resilience, and technical proficiency,” explains John William Devine, lecturer in sports ethics at Swansea University. [15]

We are “designing people for sport. We are treating human beings like pieces of meat. We create them for this activity. If commercialism pushes this so strongly, we lose the core values about celebrating human effort and the joy of the effort and the love of the game,” says Angela Schneider, professor of kinesiology at Western University. Designer athletes, so to speak, make “sport… a perversion and a circus.” [18]

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) lays out this dynamic: “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, the pursuit of human excellence through the dedicated perfection of each person’s talents. It is how we play true. The spirit of sport is the celebration of the human spirit, body and mind, and is reflected in values we find in and through sport, including Ethics, fairplay and honesty; health; excellence in performance; character and education; fun and joy; teamwork; dedication and commitment; respect for rules and laws; respect for self and other Participants; courage; community and solidarity.” [19]

In the 2004 Summer Olympics, Ukraine’s Yuriy Bilonoh earned the gold medal in the shot put. In 2013, that gold medal was awarded to American Adam Nelson “during a rushed meeting with an IOC official outside Burger King at the Atlanta Airport.” Bilonoh’s steroid use had been confirmed via drug tests and, thus, Nelson won the gold medal almost a decade after competing, without the glory or affirmation of the top place on the medal stand and without an estimated $2.5 million in income that would have come had he been awarded gold while actually at the Olympics. [20]

“The thing that makes sports fantastic is watching competition on a level playing field. Throw PEDs in the mix, and it becomes not about how good you are, but how good your doctor is,” says Nelson. Moreover, Nelson only won the gold medal because Bilonoh was drug-tested. Not all athletes in all sports are tested, meaning some who dope keep their ill-gotten awards, throwing into question every win by every athlete who has not been tested. [20]

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Con 2

Despite any benefit in injury recovery, PEDs are dangerous drugs that can still yield an unfair competitive advantage.

Even if a PED is originally used for injury or surgery recovery, the drugs’ effects can be addictive and lead to more long-term use and unfair advantage in competition. While PEDs may seem like the quick ticket to athletic glory, they are deadly. They can shorten not only an athlete’s career but their lifespan as well. We only have to look at bodybuilding, a sport that has historically encouraged PED use, for proof of this fact.

Bodybuilders “stack various steroids and other muscle-building drugs, then add in compounds intended to burn fat, blunt appetite or sap water from below the skin,” explain journalists Bonnie Berkowitz and William Neff . “They might counteract the worst side effects with another arsenal of medications, vitamins and supplements. The result can be outlandish physiques that appear indestructible but are often quite fragile.” These drug combinations essentially send their bodies into survival mode: their bodies believe death is near and every bodily process slows to try to stay alive. [21]

PED use can result in weak hearts with overly thick walls that cannot pump blood effectively, high cholesterol, blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes, not to mention a complete shutdown of the reproductive system and severe mental alterations, including “roid rage,” mood disorders, depression, psychosis, and suicide, among other disorders. [21]

Former champion bodybuilder and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says bodybuilding is “the most dangerous sport in the world. In MMA fighters, you’ve had four guys die in the last ten years. In bodybuilding you’ve had 14 guys [die] over the last ten years. So it just shows you how dangerous it is to take some of those medications and things that those guys take.” [22]

The sports themselves are brutal enough, as seen in boxing and football and the rise of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease typically associated with repetitive trauma to the head. CTE can cause headaches, depression, increased irritability, decreased ability to concentrate, loss of short-term memory, and suicidal behavior, leading to headline-making tragedies as well as numerous lawsuits. Why would the sporting world want to compound such serious medical and mental afflictions by now allowing PEDs? [23]

Moreover, as PED use gets more and more “cutting edge,” the dangers rise significantly. Jon Mannah was an Australian National Rugby League player when he died of Hodgkin lymphoma in 2013. The disease was in remission until his team’s “sports scientist” began giving him (and other players) peptides, a less-used variety of PED with little to no scientific study behind its use. His cancer returned, and he died at age 23. [24]

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Con 3

Allowing PEDs will increase youth drug use and other unhealthy activities.

A review of 52 studies of 187,288 people aged 10-21 years old, as well as an additional 894 adults, found that, on average, kids first use PEDs when they are 14 years old, with some using the drugs as early as nine. [25]

The same study found that kids who use PEDs are more likely to participate in other dangerous behaviors such as substance abuse (including alcohol, marijuana, and heroin), driving drunk, not wearing a seatbelt, riding with a drunk driver, and sexual promiscuity. Whether one bad habit directly fed another is not the point—all are signs and symptoms of dangerous behavior that should not be condoned or encouraged. [25]

While athletic performance is often a driver for PED use, a correlation between male body image and PED use has also been noted “There is increasing concern regarding a rise in body dissatisfaction in young males particularly around masculinity. Individuals develop an unhealthy obsession with muscle growth and definition and are at risk of over-exercising as well as utilising medications including anabolic agents to achieve their goals,” says Laura Lallenec, physician and medical advisor for the Australian government. [26]

Athletes, like it or not, are role models for children, especially as social media increases access to famous players. Their behavior, good and bad—and especially their use of PEDs—can spur similar actions among their youthful fans. Teddy Bridgewater, self-professed “Neighborhood Hope Dealer” and a former NFL quarterback, posted about this dynamic on Instagram: “Kids don’t be fooled. You can play ball, do the right thing and they still gonna accept you. Look at me, I’m far from perfect but I chose the ball route but I can still go to the hood and post up and it’s all love. I still keep the same 3 dudes around me. My people accept me for making all the right decisions and not falling victim or being tricked by the false image you see on IG [Instagram] from a lot of ball players.” [27]

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