should artificial performance enhancers be permitted in athletics?

Tierney at the NYT argues for “anything goes” for performance enhancement for athletes, specifically in the Olympics, but presumably also in all other sports.
Although as an aside he notes they should not be allowed for minors, presumably on the grounds that they can not make an informed decision.

A major reason to consider performance enhancement is that it is becoming near impossible to detect many modern performance enhancers and that it would be fairer to just open the field and see who has the best pharmacist, and most ruthless coach.
(What IS this nostalgia for the ’70s… but I digress).

There are two counter arguments: one is rooted in the famous Goldman survey, which claimed half of athletes surveyed would accept certain death at a young age if they were sure to win every competition; the other argument is that with detection and enforcement of performance enhancers relaxed they will inevitable proliferate among the underage athletes also.
The “Goldman’s Bet” is not a stupid as it sounds, from a purely evolutionary standpoint very high success for a short time followed by early death is an adaptive strategy in some situations; it would be “interesting” to see if there are gender differences in acceptance of such a bet – very naively this is a better bet for males than females looked at from a sociobiological perspective.
Looked at from a meta-rational perspective it is a completely insanely stupid bet. Of course.

So, that is a bit naive. For one thing the underage athletes are most certainly getting performance enhancers already, even though illegal. Enforcement is expensive and focuses on the premiere events, but to reach that stage may require enhancers, and the enhancement may also be effective at earlier stages of competition.
Further, ruthless coaching of minors certainly takes place already, and parents may push minors to take performance enhancers rather than protect them.
So, conceivably, having an open and informed market in enhancers might be better, accepting that minors will participate either way.

Further, if everyone is taking enhancers, Goldman’s Bet becomes an interated bet – there is a difference between being the only person with competitive advantage, or everyone having competitive advantage, at the risk of certain early death.
Changes the calculus, but how? Do you accept that you must take the enhancement just to get back to level playing field, or does everyone avoid them because of certain death?
The iterated Goldman’s Bet is not a stable game.

In reality, also, the “certain death” is not the stake – it is more a matter of significantly lower life expectancy, and probable crippling illness in middle age.
So there is a social cost then in caring for failed enhanced athletes.

Ultimately though, the primary concern is that the most sought after enhancers will be the latests and the greatest and therefore those whose medium and long term effects will be least known.
It is not the certain death that is the problem, it is the total uncertainty in actual effects beyond the short term.
At least until we have a comprehensive understanding of human biochemistry…

Of course there is a market solution to that also – with performance enhancers legal, the makers and suppliers can be sued by athletes if the drugs are not as advertised.

Could be an interesting world.


  1. #1 Markk
    August 12, 2008

    “In reality, also, the “certain death” is not the stake – it is more a matter of significantly lower life expectancy, and probable crippling illness in middle age.”

    What? How about the stakes being more like – better life span and less damage to your bodies during your athletic careers so you have a healthier middle age. That is just as likely as your scenario — with legal physician assisted use of the big hitter drugs for athletics.

    Really if you allowed any drugs, what you are really allowing are
    EPO variants
    steroids (really a huge category)
    HGH variants
    testosterone variants
    amphetamine variants.

    These are the big hitters. We would have to add things like the new strengthening drugs sometime in the future. None of these are exactly deadly or hurtful to your lifespan – if taken with supervision. They are very deadly if taken in excess or just a little off with little supervision. That is the real issue.

    Take EPO for example. Unsupervised use and general availability would definitely lead to heart related deaths for example (as it has already in the early 90’s). Regulated use and checks to keep the Hematocrit level appropriate probably would make long distance and high metabolic stress events safer for the athlete’s and less of a long term stress on their system.

    It is not clear to me that the prevention of the use of anti-histamines and anti-asthma drugs in cyclists, for example, doesn’t lead to more sickness and death than allowing it. There is no conclusive evidence either way though. Currently the rules are against PED’s so fair play means don’t use them, but regulated, announced use might be the safer for all in the long run.

    Personally some regulated dosages of HgH and testosterone to eliminate needing reading glasses and to reduce stress for middle age people can’t be far off and would not be turned down by me. When things like this become common, the culture (worldwide) may change.

  2. #2 phisrow
    August 13, 2008

    The current policy on sports doping seems to be built on the same model as that on recreational drugs generally. And that isn’t exactly a compliment. It seems difficult to imagine that driving athletes to shoot up on god-knows-what based on locker room scuttlebutt and the desire not to get caught by the current test regime is actually improving their health outcomes. I find the fuzzier moral arguments less persuasive still. Somehow, being born with excellent genes and working really hard is good, noble, and a triumph of the human spirit generally; while adding drugs, or excellent genes, and working really hard is wicked, a terrible example for the children, and terribly unsporting. The whole “biological passport” thing makes the notion look particularly insane. If, given the rather abnormal population that makes up the elite of any given sport, you can’t tell the difference between “natural” and “artificial” performance without exhaustive historical recordkeeping, how worked up can you reasonably get about that difference?

    I suspect that the real nail in the coffin for doping restrictions will be gene doping. As long as doping is something the athlete does, you can work up enough moral panic to ban it; but just try to tell an adorable little kid, with tears welling up in his big eager eyes, that he can never play in the Little League because mommmy and daddy had him enhanced when he was a zygote.
    Failing that, they’ll probably come up with something used for sports doping that is also so convenient for joe average that he’ll completely forget all his moral qualms overnight. You don’t hear much worrying about the terrifying epidemic of penis doping, or chemically enhanced hair, after all. Come up dope that the public finds to be worth using themselves and they’ll shut up about it pretty quickly.

  3. #3 Fertanish
    August 13, 2008

    I was just rambling about this last evening while watching a series of swimming world records get broken, some by multiple swimmers in the same race. While it isn’t meant to take away from the exceptional training and talent that the swimmers have, there is certainly an argument that the newest bodysuits are providing at least a few competitors with an advantage that wasn’t available even a few years ago.

    And, the same can be said of any sport; from shoes to suits to equipment to training techniques, advancements have enabled performers to enhance their capabilities and compete at a higher level than what they could historically.

    So, when the argument that doping damages the integrity of sports, I find the argument flawed. If we really wanted to measure a performer today from one thirty years ago, say Bonds and Aaron, we would have to make many reductions beyond chemical enhancements to reach a common denominator.

    The valid argument behind doping are the health ramifications, despite the fact that this gets lost in the “asterisk” mentality of accomplishment measurement. But, if inducing chemical enhancements ultimately evolves to a point that isn’t physically dangerous (or, at least no more dangerous than extreme training regiments), will there ultimately be any valid argument against its use versus any other competitive advancement?

  4. #4 Kayhan
    August 13, 2008

    Wouldn’t an open market on legal performance enhancing drugs lead to healthier (less unsafe) enhancers? The underground market focuses on making them undetectable rather than safer for the athletes.

  5. #5 Steinn Sigurdsson
    August 14, 2008

    Legalization of performance enhancers has an air of inevitability about it, as they become more pervasive, harder to detect in some cases, and people become more familiar and comfortable with them.

    But, the issue is what the tradeoffs are – both long term and short term.
    It can not be assumed that performance enhancement is generally overall beneficial or neutral; for one thing we don’t understand human biochemistry well enough, and that is ignoring possible idiosyncratic reactions or genetic susceptibilitie, for another, we have very little controlled long term monitoring of users and less data on doses.
    But, rapid bulking up of muscles, enhanced oxygen transport, changes in anaerobic metabolism and neurotransmitters are not something that are generally wholly beneficial. It is not that the human body is optimised, but that most local changes that are beneficial in some way tend to have some countervailing negative effects – typically involving early death or long term chronic damage.
    Some may not, we may even be able to find some such, but mostly we’ll find out the hard way as athletes get heart attacks or become crippled. The catch is that it won’t be the successeful athletes that test this – if nothing else the fact that they succeeded suggests they benefitted disproportionately. It will be the people who failed to reach the top despite taking performance enhancers that will suffer, the second rank college players or high school athletes who maxed out on some cocktails of enhancers and blew a knee or just never got fast enough or strong enough anyway,

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