For many years I have indulged myself in a little joke. My joke went like this: “When I sit down to watch a sports event, I want to see the best athletic performances possible, and that means performance enhancing drugs. Steroids should not be illegal; they should be mandatory. Steroids: make ‘em take ‘em.”
I was being facetious of course, and would never advocate the consumption of any drug against someone’s will, especially a drug that has been associated with side effects like cancer. But all the while, in the midst of my joke, I was aware that a part of me thought there was really nothing wrong with using PEDs. I have now a formal argument on the subject in support of permitting athletes who are informed of the risks to use PEDs in order to enhance their athletic performances.
Here is my most, in my opinion, compelling argument, which I place first. Suppose someone came up with a drug that would enhance intellect. Suppose that using this drug also carried with it a chance that someone might get a brain cancer. In fact, the risk is quantifiable and 1 out of every 28 would contract a rare brain cancer that had a 63% chance of killing the patient within eight years. Now suppose I, fully aware of the dangers of this drug, used it. My IQ, as measured when I was in grammar school, is 128 (above average, but not especially inspiring…and I am amused that it is higher than Richard Feynman’s, since I couldn’t do high school math at this point and Feynman was a genius). Suppose, after taking these drugs, I was able to learn all of the math necessary to earn a doctorate in Physics and, within two years after beginning this course of drugs, I discovered the source of Dark Matter, which turned out to be the gravitational affect of nearby universes, and I even figured out a way to test the hypothesis and then determined that we live in a multiverse and so on. And then I won a Nobel Prize in Physics. All of this happened within two years. Now Feynman and all of the other Nobel laureates had never taken this drug. They accomplished their great achievements with no more assistance than pens and paper. Should I give back the Nobel Prize? Should I never receive it because my brain, and it was my own brain and no other, accomplished its feat with the aid of drugs? But what if I didn’t use intelligence-enhancing drugs? What if I used an anti-cancer drug that allowed me to live an extra year, during which I was able to make the same discoveries? Should I give back the prize then (you’d have to dig me up and pry the medal from my cold, dead hands, because if I ever won a Nobel, you can bet I’d want that in the coffin with me)? Suppose I used no drugs but a computer was essential to my efforts? Should I give it up then? After all, it wasn’t really me doing all that math. Without that computer I would have had to do the calculations with a pencil and paper, and so I might have been the second one to get to the goal because someone who was faster than me at math would have beaten me to the answer.
I hope that you see my point: the drugs may enhance the performance, but it is the accomplishment that wins the prize. In the world of sports, if you hit 80 home runs in one year, you still had to hit 80 home runs in a single year. Yes, you were helped by an improvement in your physique via PEDs, but what of it? I guarantee that Babe Ruth, when he hit his 60 home runs, had some sort of injury during the year and medical science helped him overcome it. Maybe he took aspirin to get over a hangover (aspirin was first synthesized in 1897). That would have to be considered, under those circumstances, a PED. It allowed the Babe to feel good enough to hit a home run that day. What is the qualitative difference between one drug that improves performance and another?
Let’s talk technology, since I brought it up with the mention of computers. Technological improvements in sports are all over the place. Compare the times for competitive swimmers now and fifty years ago. Now they use swimsuits designed to lower friction. Should those be banned? Should you only be allowed to hold a World Record in the 100 meter backstroke if you wear a cotton swimsuit? Should all the records that have been set since modern players got trainers and whirlpools be thrown out? After all, trainers are using the most current technology to help their clients.
Let’s take the analogies even further. If your argument that a PED gives a player an unfair advantage, so does having a better coach, a better trainer, a better anything. Maybe all athletes should be made to train in isolation; nobody may help them and they’ll just have to compete naked in order to eliminate any and all differences but the fundamental skills of each.
Once you examine the arguments against PEDs and look at them in the light of these analogies, I think the matter becomes significantly clearer. PEDs are no different than drugs taken to get over an injury and help provided by technology or coaches or trainers.
Let’s stop fooling ourselves: PEDs improve performance and the bottom line in a competitive athletic endeavor is that the best performance is the one that wins, just like the best work in a particular field wins the Nobel that year. It shouldn’t matter that three-quarters of the league took PEDs, and you were one of them, the year you hit 80 home runs. You hit them. You did it. You hot more home runs than anyone had ever hit in a single season before. The drug didn’t hit them. The drug made you stronger, but you still had to hit them. If you can’t use PEDs to play a competitive sport, then maybe they should ban glasses from players with weak eyes. After all, they give the player better eyesight, but they are an artificial means of doing so.
(And seriously, if I ever won a Nobel Prize for anything, I’d wear that medal everywhere I went. I’d go ride buses when I didn’t even have to go where the bus would take me just so I could tell strangers, “See this? It’s a Nobel Prize and it’s mine.” Which reminds me of the joke about the 85 year old Jewish man who went into a church and insisted that the priest hear his confession. When the priest finally agreed, the old man told him he had just had sex with a 19 year old woman. When the priest asked him why he was telling him this, the old man said, “Telling you? I’m telling EVERYBODY!”)