Dope sports

Paul Raven @ 28-01-2011

Kyle Munkittrick takes on one of the few sports-related topics that’s of any interest to me at all, namely the blanket ban on performance-enhancement drugs. He’s bouncing off a post by cyclist Floyd Landis, who calls for a lifting of the ban using a rather cumbersome but basically valid analogy to gun control:

“In the US we have these gun laws where half the country thinks we should have them and half don’t, but the fact of the matter is that the bad guys have guns and you can’t get them back from the bad guys. It’s nice to live in a pretend world where you can start over, where you say you’re not going to have guns, well that’s wonderful and good luck with that and go to church on Sundays and enjoy yourself, but the fact of the matter is that there are guns and the bad guys have them and trying to keep others from having them isn’t going to accomplish anything… “

An argument based on pragmatism has something going for it, of course, but it puts Landis’ attempts to retain his stripped title into an interesting perspective, to say the least. But Munkittrick raises the stakes and goes after the ethical question:

Laws and ethics are not based on what is easy and what is hard to control. They are based on standards of justice and what is ethically right. The reason I believe doping should be allowed is that I see nothing unjust or wrong about professional athletes using chemical compounds and medical knowledge to improve their abilities and performance. Let me rephrase that: there is nothing wrong with taking steroids.

The concern over professional athletes misusing steroids is always framed as some lone juicer injecting himself in his bedroom so he can get that extra home run. That’s not how it happens. Even illegal doping is under the watchful gaze of a team of professional athletic doctors, trainers and nutritionists. Do you think Floyd Landis mixed up his hyper-complex, nary-undetectible designer steroids and blood doping techniques in a lab in his basement?

Steroids are dangerous. But so are thousands of other prescription drugs for which we require doctor supervision. The only ethical reason to ban steroids if they are dangerous and harmful even when used properly. To say doping is wrong because it’s against the rules is circular, yet that’s what most arguments come down to once one is unable to prove steroids are harmful if used properly. Let’s stop pretending that most professional athletes 1) aren’t doping and 2) that they aren’t under strict supervision when they do. Let em take ‘roids.

My own argument in favour of lifting the ban is simply that it would make sports much more entertaining: strip away the false veneer that it’s all about a fair contest between equals and expose it as the sponsorship-fueled tribal ape pissing contest that it really is. Let transhumans like Oscar Pistorius compete against unmodified meatbags; let corporate-sponsored teams become close-knit clans that tweak their genes from generation to generation in the hope of giving them an edge. Because as Munkittrick points out, they’re all trying to do exactly that anyway; if people want to risk screwing up their bodies so they can win an ultimately meaningless physical contest, I say let ’em do it.

Would public pressure to achieve drive athletes to dangerous extremes? Quite possibly, if it isn’t already doing so – and that might force us to face the archaic relationship we have with physical contests as status markers and political symbolism. In the meantime, just think of the television possibilities… something’s got to replace the fading lustre of “reality” programming, after all, and what better than ritualised combat between end-case transhumans?

[ * NB: much of the above paragraph is meant as sarcasm, but by no means all; I’ll leave you to guess which bits are which. And if you’re wondering whether I was picked on by jocks at school, yes, I was. ]

Reasons not to worry about brain enhancement drugs

Paul Raven @ 20-08-2010

Professor Henry Greely reckons it’s high time (arf!) that we stopped trying to ban cognitive enhancement drugs and focus our attentions on developing rules governing their use [via SentientDevelopments]. It’s a pragmatic approach; as Greely points out, the current grey legality of “revision drugs” like Ritalin isn’t doing anything to stop their use, and as the pharmacological industry introduces more cognition-boosting chemicals onto the market (albeit ostensibly as treatments for various maladies of the mindmeat), that situation is unlikely to reverse itself.

Of course, lots of people are scared of the idea of brain enhancement, and there are some good reasons for that. But there are also some bad (or at least illogical) reasons. take it away, Mr Greely:

There are at least three unsound reasons for concern: cheating, solidarity, and naturalness.

Many people find the assertion that enhancement is cheating to be convincing. Sometimes it is: If rules or laws ban an enhancement, then using it is cheating. But that does not help in situations where there are no rules or the rules are still being determined. The problem with viewing enhancements as cheating is that enhancements, broadly defined, are ubiquitous. If taking a cognitive-enhancement drug before a college entrance exam is cheating, what about taking a prep course? Using a computer program for test preparation? Reading a book about taking the test? Drinking a cup of coffee the morning of the test? Getting a good night’s sleep before the test? To say that direct brain enhancement is inherently cheating is to require a standard of what the “right” competition is. What would be the generally accepted standard in our complex and only somewhat meritocratic society?

The idea of enhancement as cheating is also related to the idea that enhancement replaces effort. Yet the plausible cognitive enhancements would not eliminate the need to study; they would just make studying more effective. In any event, we do not reward effort, we reward success. People with naturally good memories have advantages over others in organic chemistry exams, but they did not work for that good memory.

Some argue that enhancement is unnatural and threatens to take us beyond our humanity. This argument, too, suffers from a major problem. All of our civilization is unnatural. A fair speaker could not fly across a continent, take a taxi to an air-conditioned auditorium, and give a microphone-assisted PowerPoint presentation decrying enhancement as unnatural without either a sense of humor or a good argument for why these enhancements are different. Because they change our physical bodies? So do medicine, good food, clothing, and a hundred other unnatural changes. Because they change our brains? So does education. What argument justifies drawing the line here and not there? A strong naturalness argument against direct brain enhancements, in particular, has not been—and I think cannot be—made. Humans have constantly been changing our world and ourselves, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. A golden age of unenhanced naturalness is a myth, not an argument.

I’m guessing that most readers here are open to the idea of cognitive enhancement (by whatever method)… but even so, what’s the most compelling argument you’ve heard against it?

The straight dope – performance enhancement drugs and the Olympics

Paul Raven @ 14-08-2008

syringe and ampoulesThe Beijing Olympic games are seeing a record-breaking achievement of a different kind – a round-the-clock lab team performing a greater number of tests for performance enhancing drugs, and more different types of tests, than ever before. And even so, the International Olympic Committee expect up to forty athletes to test positive for illicit substances. [image by happysnappr]

So – as suggested in the New York Times but originally proposed by bioethicists and other scientistswhy don’t we just do away with the restrictions entirely?

“… what we have now is not a level playing field. The system punishes some innocent athletes and rewards others with the savvy and the connections not to get caught. The more that the authorities crack down on known forms of enhancement, the more incentive athletes have to experiment with new ones — and to get their advice from black-market dealers instead of doctors.


If elite adult athletes were allowed to push the limits of human performance in return for glory, they might point the way for lesser mortals to coax more out of their bodies. If a 50-year-old sprinter could figure out how to run as fast as her 25-year-old self, that could be useful to aging weekend warriors — or any aging couch potato.”

As I’ve suggested many times before to anyone foolish enough to ask my opinion about sports, the thing to do is create a separate league for athletes who enhance themselves, run it in parallel, and sit back to watch the viewing ratings. The noble myth of the natural athlete would die off pretty quick in the hard glare of economics, I’m thinking.

But I suspect that – as with the case of Oscar “Bladerunner” Pistoriuseconomics is the one big force keeping things the way they are. After all, Nike and Adidas and their ilk like to be able to claim that their clothing or footwear is what separates first place from first loser, rather than chemical [x] or prosthesis [y]… and they’ve got a lot of money to throw around in the process.

But would they have enough to hold out against Big Pharma, if they were allowed to join the contest?