on doping in sports


The official position of the Australian government is that doping in sports should be eradicated because it leads to unacceptable health risks and unfair competition. Sport is a multi-billion dollar industry so it is time for economists to assess the reasonableness of this constraint on competition.

The first piece of scientific evidence is that élite sport is extremely unhealthy. Especially endurance and power sport, because of the gruelling effects of heavy training and the health risks of being very muscular.

Athletes in extreme endurance sports, such as road cycling and marathons, train up to four hours every day. Their heart beats at a rate of about 150 per second for the whole time. During this training, their bodies burn several times more calories than a normal person consumes. This directly translates into body decay and reduced length of life.

Events also take a heavy toll. The extreme example of this is probably the Tour de France, the world’s best known cycling race that takes about thirty days to complete. On a particularly tough day, where cyclists have to race for more than 200 kilometres and climb more than five kilometres, they burn about ten times as many calories as the average person burns in a day. The amount of calories consumed is so large, that these athletes have to be on sugar-drips throughout the night to re-stock what they have used in order to be able to compete again the next day. They are literally burning their bodies at incredible rates during training and during events. Thus, being a top cyclist for ten years, easily reduces your lifespan by twenty years

For female endurance athletes the effects are even worse. Not only do they forego decades of their lives, but they also cease to menstruate, they have such low fat reserves that their bodies cease to function normally. Hence top endurance athletes are forced to give up much of what makes them human simply to compete.

Power sports are exceedingly unhealthy. Hearts often do not keep up with the increase in body size experienced by muscular athletes. Their hearts thus have to pump harder than they should, at higher rates and under higher levels of blood pressure. This too costs power athletes, such as sprinters and strength athletes, several years. The high levels of sugar in the blood of power athletes increases cell decay and often leads to diabetes later in life, reducing the quality of life for ex-athletes. Such health effects are directly due to the nature of their sports and the training required in becoming competitive with other athletes.

Top sports without doping is extremely unfair. Combining all Olympics, about 95 percent of medals were won by athletes from countries that make up no more than 20 percent of the world population. India is still waiting for its first individual Olympic gold medal, despite having more people than all the Western countries (who have won most of the medals the last fifty years) combined. Not because Indians are innately uncompetitive, simply because they are poor and cannot afford the facilities required to train a top athlete.

Australia, which spends roughly $10 million for each Olympic medal (the budget of the Australian Institute of Sport is about $120 million a year, the medal tally of the Athens Olympics is 49) is thus clearly being ‘unfair’. Its athletes have the ‘unfair’ advantage of being trained according to the latest training methods, receive the best possible nutrition money can buy, get the best technical coaching, are allowed to go on extremely expensive ‘high-altitude training’ courses, etc.

The current situation is thus that the ‘thoroughbreds’ of Australian sports at the Australian Institute of Sport are as much the product of sporting laboratories as any laboratory rat. Its athletes are honed from early childhood to perfection with vast amounts of money, continuous tests to improve fitness and strength, exposure to mental and physical top-level training, etc. The resulting twenty-something year old athlete may resemble a normal human being, but is in fact the product of up to fifteen years of unnatural preparation.

The present situation, in which effectively money buys sporting success, is as far from ‘fair’ as Carlton is from winning the AFL. Not only money makes top sports unfair. Natural ability is also unfairly distributed. Sprint competitions are invariably won by those with unusually high levels of testosterone production, an advantage from birth. That those with less testosterone are not allowed to inject what others get from genetic endowment is unfair. It is a perpetuation of an uneven distribution of abilities at birth.

Australia is thus buying sporting success in competition with other laboratories in other rich countries. There too, national sporting laboratories ‘prepare’ athletes to compete with other laboratory products, all at incredible costs, deflecting money from other purposes. At the moment the Olympics and other sporting events reflect the race between subsidised sporting laboratories. Whether you recognise it or not, it is a simple fact of sport that the best laboratories win.

Yet, the political paymasters of these laboratories complain about doping users because of supposed health and fairness considerations.

Just think of what would happen if administrators would truly care about the health of competitors given the present training regimes. Most forms of top sport would be banned outright. Perhaps a few sports that require mainly technique would survive such health-related criteria. Indoor bowling; snooker; darts; croquet; perhaps even cricket would survive. None of the major football codes, athletics events, or indeed anything requiring speed, strength, or stamina would survive.

The two major arguments used to advocate a ‘drugs free sports’ are bogus and have permitted and encouraged an expensive system of laboratory preparation of athletes. If we truly cared about the health of athletes, we would ban most top sports, and if we truly cared about fairness, we would stop buying sporting success and allow those with disadvantages to compensate chemically. The advocates of drugs-free sports are either idiots or cynical. They are probably cynical because they often come from rich countries that can afford to buy sporting success, and because they often are successful ex-athletes or family members of successful athletes who have thus most likely enjoyed an unfair genetic and financial advantage.

There are to my mind two possible avenues forward. The first is to ‘give in’ to the demand that athletes should strive for maximum results without limits. Let competition reign. In such a scenario, one would let athletes be responsible for what they ingest and stop the pretence that top sports are healthy or fair. Without hypocrisy, we would just enjoy the freak-show of competition between oversized athletes who will probably die soon after their sporting careers. Like the ancient gladiators of Rome who never hoped to live long, athletes would have a life of great glory crammed into a few years. The quote of Shakespeare’s Richard III, ‘one moment of sweet glorious life is worth an age without a name’, would become the leitmotif of athletes. They’d win by whatever means. We’d cheer the victor.

The second approach would be to stop the current hypocrisy and opt for healthy and fair sports. The way to organise this is not to test for drugs but to test for the results of all advantages, i.e. the level of fitness and strength of the athlete. We could put a maximum on how fit, strong, and agile an athlete can be. Tests for these are fairly straightforward and hard to mislead: the speed of lactose secretion is a good indicator of fitness, as is the density of muscle cells. Muscles can furthermore be measured in size and electrically stimulated, allowing for an objective measure of their strength. Fat reserves can be measured, so that those who are skinny to an unhealthy extent can be excluded. Oxygen transportation in the blood can be directly monitored, allowing a direct measure of endurance. We could set an upper limit on how high these indicators could be, and we’d exclude all those above them from the particular competition they are tested for.

As a result all those too strong, over-trained, and too fit would thus be excluded from competition. What would then happen? The answer is clear: every athlete would try to be exactly on the borderline of the fitness and strength level allowed. For those with great natural fitness or strength, this means they have to do little. Those with less natural fitness or strength will train more. Those with no natural fitness or strength will use chemical stimulators. Because the number of eventual athletes stays the same, this means far less damaging training (which is the biggest health hazard) will occur. Poor individuals will then also have a fair chance of winning because they too can make it to the starting line-up. It would still be a competitive environment because the mental effort exerted during the event will then probably tip the balance. Because all competitors will be roughly equally fit and strong though, the odds of winning are far more even which makes the eventual outcome more uncertain and thus makes for more exciting events.

There are great practical advantages to the test régime involved in this: these tests can be performed just before events and thus do not require invasive and very costly random checks during training. They would also do away with the need for the extremely expensive sporting laboratories currently eating up sports budgets and would thus allow the support of sports at grass-roots levels, where sport is healthy because it is dosed.

Juan Antonio Samaranch, the long serving head of the International Olympic Committee, once advocated health checks instead of drug checks. The bosses of rich sports and representatives of rich countries shouted him down. On other occasions representatives of rich countries have stopped any attempts at reforms advocated by doctors and scientists. This approach is thus blocked by those countries currently buying sporting success, and it also seems unlikely that the ‘competition par excellence’ avenue will be adopted soon.

We must therefore look the truth in the eye and note that the reality of top sports in the near future will be that the race between laboratories will continue to dominate sports. We are already in the age of the gladiators, with only minimal restrictions on what athletes are allowed to do to themselves to win.

If you want to turn this tide then phone your representative today and let them know that the ban on drugs in sports is immoral and unfair. Tell them to start banning over-prepared athletes who resemble laboratory rats.

The ban on drugs in sports has no reasonable rationale whatsoever. So stop worrying about drugs in sports and enjoy the freak show on offer.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.