Until this spring, in spite of a positive drug test which resulted in his being stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title, cyclist Floyd Landis staunchly maintained his innocence. In late May however, Landis not only confessed to doping throughout much of his career, but also implicated numerous other riders and management who had been part of both the Phonak and the U.S. Postal Service cycling teams -- including former teammate Lance Armstrong.
Since the so-called "Festina Scandal" at the 1998 Tour de France, cycling has been besieged by a series of doping cases which have deeply undermined the credibility of the sport. While some have called for a cathartic period of amnesty for those who confess to their use of performance-enhancing drugs, others have proposed that the use of performance-enhancing drugs should be allowed.
Proponents for allowing the use of performance-enhancing drugs often base their position on two fundamental claims. First, that the numerous scandals have revealed the problem of doping to be so endemic that anti-doping measures will always lag behind the drugs and methods employed by athletes, and that it is therefore best to simply acknowledge that professional athletes dope. And second, that if the use of performance-enhancing drugs were to be allowed, it would be possible to regulate and impose safety standards for the use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes who, because of current anti-doping regulations, often employ dangerous doping regimens administered with minimal medical oversight.
One of those who argues for the regulation of performance-enhancing drugs, is Freakonomics co-author Stephen J. Dubner. In 2007, shortly after the conclusion of yet another Tour de France marred by doping scandals, Dubner suggested in his New York Times piece, "Should We Just Let the Tour de France Dopers Dope Away?" that regulated doping should be considered. As Dubner wrote,
"Is it time, perhaps, to come up with a pre-approved list of performance-enhancing agents and procedures, require the riders to accept full responsibility for whatever long-term physical and emotional damage these agents and procedures may produce, and let everyone ride on a relatively even keel without having to ban the leader every third day? If the cyclists are already doping, why should we worry about their health? If the sport is already so gravely compromised, why should we pretend it hasn't been?"
While no sports organizations or governing bodies have publicly given any indication that they are considering any such proposal, it is worth thinking about what is at stake in the debate over performance-enhancing drugs, and why those who say "let them dope" are fundamentally wrong.
Doping is neither universal, nor does it take place in a closed system among a participant pool of athletes with no turnover. However, both of these beliefs are latent in Dubner's claim that "...the cyclists are already doping...." In the assertion that there is a monolithic group of "cyclists", and that this group of individuals has made an informed decision to use performance-enhancing drugs, Dubner ignores the vicious turnover that is part of professional sports, and what allowing for the use of performance-enhancing drugs would mean for every young athlete who aspires to be a professional. In the wake of those who have elected to dope are numerous other athletes who have either continued competing at a lower level without drugs, or who have left the sport entirely. If doping were to be allowed, rising to the highest levels of sport becomes contingent not upon only hard work, talent, and perseverance, but also upon an athlete's willingness to take risks with their health.
And while some claim that allowing for the use of performance-enhancing drugs would allow for greater medical oversight, which would mitigate the health risks posed to athletes, any such claim is contingent upon the assumption that the medically safe level of a performance-enhancer is the same as the level to yield the greatest performance gain. Allowing for the regulated use of performance-enhancing drugs does not stop the arms race of doping among athletes, but only sanctions it. If a formerly banned substance were to be allowed at a particular level (which is lower than that at which one can maximize one's performance) one can almost be certain that there will be an athlete willing to take the risk of using the substance not at the regulated medically safe level, but rather at a level sufficient to yield the greatest competitive advantage.
There will always be champions and also-rans, but doping makes it impossible to discern one group from the other. In endurance sports, a new generation of blood-boosting drugs have made champions out of those who, but for their willingness to risk their health, and cheat their competitors, would have never have had the ability to win. And more critically, those who would otherwise have risen to the top of the sport through their natural talent and drive, but who were unwilling to use performance-enhancing drugs, will likely never know what they could have achieved.
Almost all justifications for the allowance of performance-enhancing drugs are predicated upon the fiction that athletes are not like everyone else. Implicit in these justifications is the belief that neither we nor our children would wish or be able to become professional athletes, and that when an athlete elects to use performance-enhancing drugs, he or she is already an adult, competing against other adults, who have made the choice to become professional athletes, fully cognizant of the psychological and physical risks that are necessary in order to rise to the top of his or her chosen profession.
However, athletes are like us. And it is because of our ability to sympathize with their struggles on the field of play that sports have any meaning at all. This meaning evaporates though when the collective frustration with doping turns athletes into a monolithic "other," who can use performance-enhancing drugs if they so choose, and whose struggles thus become not like our own, but those of someone unlike anyone whom we would want to be.
James H. Hibbard is a former professional cyclist, and is currently a doctoral student studying philosophy at DePaul University.