Is Doping Wrong?

The ban on doping by athletes reflects the view that taking drugs violates the spirit of sport. But it is difficult to defend the current line between what athletes can and cannot do in order to enhance their performance.

There is now a regular season for discussing drugs in sports, one that arrives every year with the Tour de France. This year, the overall leader, two other riders, and two teams were expelled or withdrew from the race as a result of failing, or missing, drug tests. The eventual winner, Alberto Contador, is himself alleged to have had a positive test result last year. So many leading cyclists have tested positive for drugs, or have admitted, from the safety of retirement, that they used them, that one can plausibly doubt that it is possible to be competitive in this event otherwise.

In the United States, the debate has been fueled by the baseball player Barry Bonds’ march towards the all-time record for home runs in a career. Bonds is widely believed to have been helped by drugs and synthetic hormones. He is frequently booed and mocked by fans, and many thought that baseball’s commissioner, Bud Selig, should not attend games at which Bonds might tie or break the record.

At the elite level, the difference between being a champion and an also-ran is so miniscule, and yet matters so much, that athletes are pressured to do whatever they can to gain the slightest edge over their competitors. It is reasonable to suspect that gold medals now go not to those who are drug-free, but to those who most successfully refine their drug use for maximum enhancement without detection.

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