Matters Of Debate | Issue 22

Matters Of Debate | Issue 22

Performance enhancing drugs should be legalised

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Affirmative, by Blue Steel

What time is more appropriate to talk about drugs and sport than the Olympics? 

There’s an easy joke to be made about Russia right here, but I’m better than that. Anyway, is it a bad thing to have nine foot tall steroid-sacks that can hurl a shot put farther than most of us can see? The answer is not necessarily; the problems of fairness and good sportsmanship already exist in the current system because of inconsistent sporting rules.

The first question we have to ask ourselves is “why do we enjoy sport?” It’s not because we like the warm-fuzzies of fair competition in the noble-minded pursuit of the greatest athlete. This isn’t ancient Greece and the Olympics no longer solely consist of oiled up men wrestling each other. We enjoy it because it is a spectacle. Each event or game is a demonstration of awesome human ability. We don’t watch the 100 metre sprints because we believe that anyone could win, we watch it because Usain Bolt is terrifyingly fast. 

PEDs can improve that spectacle phenomenally. It’s important to note that we do already do things to improve the demonstration of skill. Athletes aren’t ordinary Joe Bloggs off the street; they supplement natural talent (often also at a huge risk/cost to themselves) with intensive training, dietary regimes and specialist coaching. Likewise, performance enhancing drugs enhance existing skills - you still need to learn technique, and practice to improve that technique. PEDs make you better able to learn and do well at that particular sport. The better you are able to do, the more of a spectacle the sport is. 

PEDs also level the playing field between richer and poorer nations. It costs millions to build training facilities and purchase Olympic class equipment for your athletes. Those same athletes have to be able to afford to devote their lives to coaching and training, rather than working a job to support themselves. Comparatively, steroids are relatively cheap. They don’t mean you don’t have to train, but you can afford to train with less. This isn’t important because we want a fairer world, it’s important because currently the developed world can rest on their laurels. Performance enhancing drugs mean a better class of athlete globally and so a better competition overall.

Negative, by The Karate Kid

PEDs don’t improve the spectacle of sport. The reason why people love watching Usain race is that he defies expectations and abilities, not only of viewers but also of competitors, most of whom have doped in the past. It’s all relative and let’s be real here, when everybody on the track runs five seconds faster the competition has in no way been enhanced. The analogies to diet and training overlook one of the most fundamental reasons that PEDs are so widely opposed; they can be detrimental to athletes’ health - especially in the long-term. The inevitable popularisation of PEDs that would stem from legislation would place an unprecedented level of pressure on athletes to take dangerous risks with usage to try and gain a competitive edge. Legalising PEDs will only bring out their ugly side at a devastating cost.

Even if we agree that the additional thrill of raising the average a bit would be good for entertainment purposes, it’s not all about the spectators. Athletes are real people who pursue sport, at least initially, for the social and health benefits at a grassroots level. Legalising PEDs would have the potential to harm amateur and development level sport because it says to people starting sport “if you want to be truly competitive you have to dope”… something that could easily disillusion and dissuade people from pursuing sport further. 

Another issue is choice. Athletes and their coaches deserve the right to abstain from doping but realistically, the probable proliferation of PEDs puts coercive pressure on athletes to opt in in order to be competitive in their field—even if it’s something they fundamentally oppose. Furthermore, developing countries don’t actually win here. The financial advantage that some countries exploit at high-level sport, if anything, would be amplified by the legalisation of PEDs. Richer nations will arguably be able to develop better PEDs and fund them more widely than poorer nations. Further, re-allocating funding to PEDs and away from facilities, coaching, and equipment for athletes in the developing world will likely result in no net performance gain when it comes at the cost of refining skills. Unless we assume that every athlete in developing nations is at the absolute peak of their game then PEDs are a proposal developing nations should abhor. 

PEDs negatively affect sport as an institution and don’t improve the spectacle… so why bother using them?

This article first appeared in Issue 22, 2016.
Posted 11:59am Saturday 10th September 2016 by Otago University Debating Society.