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Drugs, Sport, and Ethics

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.

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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 inches. 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 six feet in height. An accurate jump shot and the willingness to take punishment never made up for my size and mediocre leaping ability.

Whatever natural abilities we have must be perfected. We achieve this - or not - through a combination of virtues such as fortitude in the face of relentless training, physical courage as we persevere through pain, and cleverness when we outsmart our opponents, along with other factors such as helpful coaching, optimized equipment, and sound nutrition.

Natural talents should be respected for what they are: the occasionally awesome luck of the biological draw. Courage, fortitude, competitive savvy, and other virtues rightfully command our moral admiration. The other factors - equipment, coaching, and nutrition - contribute to an athlete's success but don't evoke the same awe or esteem. When we watch a sprinter set a new Olympic record in the hundred meter dash, it's not the shoes he or she wears that command our admiration. Nor is it the coaching received or the energy bar consumed just before the event.

All of these contribute to the record, just like a good camera was necessary for Ansel Adam's unforgettable photos of the American West, or good marble and sharp chisels for Michelangelo's sculpture of David. But what we care about most, what gives that achievement its meaning and value, is the ineffable combination of remarkable natural talents and extraordinary dedication.

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Performance enhancing drugs disguise natural abilities and substitute for the dedication and focus that we admire. Performance enhancing drugs cheapen sport, making winners out of also-rans, and depriving virtuous and superior athletes of the victories that should be theirs.

Getting performance enhancing drugs out of sport will not be easy, and success is not assured. But the effort is worthwhile as long as we care enough about fairness, integrity, and the meaning and value of sport.