Thursday, September 07, 2006

Some perspective on sports doping

Freakonomics has reprinted a letter to the editor of Sports Illustrated magazine which is worth repeating.

The letter is from Brandon Gaut of Irvine, California.

As a scientist and a sports fan, I believe the current doping scandals compromise science as much as sports. The tests are performed by entities motivated by and funded to achieve the goal of detecting cheaters; their objectivity is suspect. Also, it is a scientific fact that there will be positive tests even when there are no cheaters. From my perspective, the puzzle is not the occasional prositive test, but why there aren't a great many more. The system is broken, and I fear it is not always due to cheating athletes.

I must admit I don't understand the obsession with banning "performance-enhancing drugs". All of sports training is designed to enhance performance, and none of it is particularly natural. Whether it is intensive training, dietary supplements or "approved" drugs (antibiotics, pain-killers, medicines of many varieties), none of it is especially natural, and all of it takes a great toll on the athlete's body.

I don't see that anaerobic steroids and other banned drugs are any worse for the athlete, nor cheating. We don't try to distinguish between natural athletes and "unnatural" athletes. All athletes are allowed to exercise and train hard, which is a pretty unnatural thing to do. They pump their bodies full of "permitted" chemicals, including antibiotics, painkillers and other drugs, as well as other chemicals such as vitamins, minerals and "nutritional supplements". They eat carefully tailored food combinations. There is nothing natural about "loading up on carbs". Why are hormones and steroids treated differently?

It is a double standard for sports administrators to allow athletes to eat protein supplements to put on more muscle mass, but not natural hormones that assist in growing muscles. I don't believe the excuse that it is because of the side-effects. If they were genuinely worried about the health of the athlete, they wouldn't allow them to become athletes in the first place. The high-intensity training and competition they go through not only leads to serious, permanent, mechanical damage to joints, but it also seriously weakens the immune system. Elite athletes might be able to push their bodies further, faster and harder than ordinary folks, but they aren't healthier. Sport is about performance, not health.

But all that is by-the-by. Even if we decide that "drugs are bad, m'kay?" and ban anabolic steroids and others, it is important to remember that the drug testing labs are highly motivated to detect cheats, and there will always be false positives. Claims of drug cheating should always be taken with a grain of salt.

[Update, 2 Sep 2007: fixed a silly typo/thinko where I wrote "anaerobic" instead of anabolic. Drugs for athletes who don't breathe perhaps?]

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