Social Science blog

25 January 2012

To take it or leave it?

The announcement last week about the opening of the London 2012 anti-doping laboratory seems to have moved the focus of current media scrutiny away from Olympic security and towards the problem of cheating. Interest in the latter has always loomed large in academic research, however, not only from a scientific point of view but from a sociological one too. The London 2012 laboratory, based in Harlow in Essex, is equipped, we are told, to analyse over 6000 samples (a record for the Games), so the message emerging is that the issue is being taken as seriously as ever by practitioners. The questions are though: how sophisticated are the weapons being brought to bear on cheating, especially in this age of genetic modification, and should we be short-circuiting the problem by taking a fresh look at the ethics of doping?

One of the suggestions being tentatively tossed to at fro in academic circles centres on the idea of actually legitimising the use of performance-enhancing measures, and there are several arguments for this: it would mean that the escalating race to keep athletes ‘clean’ would cease to be an ever increasing burden on the authorities, and the effects of supplements on athletes’ health could be properly monitored in the  long-term. One of the principal supporters of this line of reasoning is Professor Andy Miah of the University of the West of Scotland who has published a number of books and articles on the subject. His argument is that regulated ‘enhancement’ is a legitimate practice for improved athletic performance, and that the sports authorities have something of a moral duty to ensure that enhancements are safe to use.

The struggle for ‘clean’ athletes is being waged on many different sporting fronts: in baseball, in cycling, in weightlifting. And there’s nothing new in the use of performance enhancing substances. In the 19th century people took small doses of strychnine with brandy to aid endurance, and as time went on more and more artificial aids became available: amphetamines, steroids, even transfusions of blood with high levels of red blood cells. Nowadays the range of potential ‘procedures’ is even wider, and often increasingly harder to detect.

 The arguments against the legitimising of performance enhancing substances are powerful. They are allied in some ways to our attitudes to recreational drug use which seek to prohibit it on the grounds of the extreme harm it can do. However, we are currently losing that battle too, giving rise to calls for a decriminalisation of drug use. If athletes want to take performance enhancers they will find a way to do it, it is argued, and perhaps the best way of tackling the problem is to leave the onus for the decision on the individual. This would probably lead to a breakaway movement of ‘clean’ athletes – as has happened in bodybuilding – and a re-evaluation of our attitude to what sporting excellence actually means.

 Still, I can’t overcome my feeling that taking performance enhancers is wrong and that the messages such actions send out are wrong. If we regulate certain drugs for use because they are safe, how do we control the ones that are not? Aren’t we back with the same old dilemma again?


Andy Miah Genetically modified athletes: biomedical ethics, gene doping & sport

London: Routledge, 2004

London reference collections shelfmark: YK.2006.a.3899

DS shelfmark: m04/31386

Doping in sport: global ethical issues edited by Angela J Schneider & Fan Hong

London: Routledge, 2007

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2012.a.472

DS shelfmark: m07/26273

Verner Moller The ethics of doping and anti-doping: redeeming the soul of sport

London: Routledge, 2010

London reference collections shelfmark: SPIS362.29

DS shelfmark: m09/33766


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