Sat, Jul 31, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Purging drugs from sport is critical to reward natural abilities

Integrity demands that users of performance-enhancing drugs be given no quarter, because everyone stands to lose if a level playing field is not strictly enforced

By Thomas Murray

When the Olympic Games return to Greece this summer, the results at the drug-testing laboratory may get as much attention as what happens at the Olympic stadium. The history of drugs, and drug control, at the Olympics is discouraging -- a farrago of ill-informed rules, outright state-sponsored cheating, and half-hearted and erratic attempts at enforcement.

A new model has recently revived hope for effective drug control by moving testing and enforcement from the direct control of the International Olympic Committee and the national governing bodies to the World Anti-Doping Agency and similar organizations at the national level. The US Anti-Doping Agency, for example, played a central role in uncovering a new synthetic steroid known as THG linked to a California firm catering to Olympic and professional athletes.

But the renewed hope will be frustrated unless we can respond effectively to the ethical challenge. No amount of interdiction will suffice if we do not explain clearly what, precisely, is wrong with using performance-enhancing drugs in sport.

There are three compelling reasons to ban such drugs: assuring all athletes that the competition is fair; preserving the integrity of the athlete; and safeguarding what gives sport its meaning and value.

Young Olympians devote their lives to their sport for the opportunity to match themselves against the world's most gifted and dedicated athletes. The difference between gold medalist and also-ran may be measured in fractions of seconds or centimeters. A tiny advantage can make all the difference. What if that advantage comes from using a performance-enhancing drug?

For athletes who want to compete clean, the threat that they may be beaten by a competitor who is not faster, stronger, or more dedicated, but who takes a drug to gain the edge, is profoundly personal. When drugs are prohibited but some athletes use them anyway the playing field tilts in favor of the cheater. If we prohibit drugs in the Olympic Games, we owe it to the athletes to deter, detect and punish those who cheat.

Integrity seems like an old-fashioned idea, but it is at the heart of who we are and how we live. Performance-enhancing drugs affect the individual athlete's integrity in two ways. First, if drugs are banned, then choosing not to use them is a test of one's character. A person of integrity does not behave dishonestly. A person of integrity does not seek to prevail over his competitors by methods that give him an illegitimate advantage.

Second, the concept of integrity implies wholeness, being unbroken, moral soundness and freedom from corruption. When an athlete wins by using a performance-enhancing drug, what does that mean for the athlete's own understanding of what happened? Am I the world's best? Or was my supposed victory hopelessly tainted by the drug's effects? The meaning of a drug-aided victory is ambiguous and elusive even for the athlete. It is the result of corruption and brokenness, the very opposite of authentic victory.

What makes a victory authentic? What gives sport its meaning and value? We expect the winning athlete to combine extraordinary natural talents with exemplary effort, training and technique. These are all forms of human excellence. Some we are born with -- or not. As much as I loved playing basketball, I was destined never quite to reach a certain height. An accurate jump shot and the willingness to take punishment never made up for my size and mediocre leaping ability.

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