All doped up and nowhere to go

I read three eye-opening articles about doping in track and field recently, which really made me think about the sport across the various levels. What are we trying to accomplish at our club and school level? How do these doping allegations affect us and our work?

I’m not satisfied with knee-jerk responses that “drugs are bad, mmmkay?” and that one violation should lead to a lifetime ban. The problem with this response is that it conflates two possible reasons why there are doping rules in the first place, and, in my opinion, confuses the repercussions for each. We have to ask the right questions: why is doping wrong?

Contrary to what most people think, the first and foremost reason for the doping rules are to protect the health of the athletes. The idea is that if you’re getting some under the table/backdoor/dark alley meds from a fly-by-night qwack, it might be a danger to your well-being. Of course, the sport has evolved past this, and now the substances that are taken by many at the highest levels are possibly safer than over-the-counter pharmaceuticals! Ok, that may be exaggerating, but the image of the dirty doctor is probably out-dated. Athletes at the top of the heap are not going to risk their careers with something uncertain. They may risk it on something illegal, but that’s another story.

The other big reason certain substances are banned is because not everyone may have equal access to them, and thus, the playing field is unleveled when they are used. I think, again, we have moved past this, or, at least, a bit of deeper thought about it shows that it’s not really a good reason to ban drugs. The playing field is not level. It never has been and it never will be. David Epstein’s latest book, The Sports Gene, does a great job outlining how genetics plays a role in creating elite athletes. We are not all created equal. He also describes the great importance of practice, while at the same time debunking the 10,000 hour rule. Yes, skills can be acquired, but depending on your genetic make-up, it may take you 3000 or 17,000 hours to get to an elite level. Again: not a level playing field. Parsed further, the ability to get out and do those hours is dependent on many factors over which we have little or no control: possibly genetics (again), your parents’ income, the country you live in, the school you go to, the friends you make. Life is not a level playing field, and neither is sport.

This leaves us with two more reasons given not to take PEDs. The first is that it’s morally wrong to take drugs. This is obviously a very vague and circular bit of reasoning (drugs are bad because they are bad), but many people make it the cornerstone of their crusade against drugs. Is it a moral issue? What makes it ok to drink coffee and booze (both legal), but not ok to smoke pot (illegal)? Some don’t have a moral problem with pot, but do have an issue with alcohol. Many people feel it’s morally wrong to smoke cigarettes, yet they are legal. Some people think it is morally wrong to eat meat. Morality is a highly subjective game, and unless you are preaching to the choir, the moral argument is not a strong one.

The other point of attack on PED users is that it’s just against the rules. It doesn’t matter why: the rules are just the rules. I like this argument the best. We can debate the reasons and the morality all we like, but the rules are clear for all. False starts or lane violations can be controversial, but in the end, this is where the level playing field argument should apply: the rules may be arbitrary, and some advantages (genetic) may be outside the rules, but all athletes are aware of them from the start.

I liken it to the well-known crime of “academic dishonestly” or plagiarism. When I was working on the “Academic Integrity Committee” (I don’t know if it was called that, but it was some such name) at McGill when I was in law school, I pushed very hard for the wording and interpretation of rules on plagiarism to tend towards the technical. What I mean is: non- or miss-attribution is a mistake like a spelling error, or a grammar error. Adding a moral dimension to it does nothing for undergrads because they easily rationalise their way out of it. Grad students were much less likely to make such errors (based on my time representing students accused of academic misconduct), and when they did, it was very much in the realm of technicalities. When the rules were explained to students simply as: “this is how you cite sources, this is the correct way to do it” there was much more conformity to the rules. When a large amount of emotion and drama went into telling them how they would be a bad person for cheating in this way, eyes rolled and minds drifted. Morality is subjective and not consistently motivating.

I believe the same stance should hold for the drug rules as they currently exist. If you step on the inside of line, you are out of the race. If you take a banned substance in competition, you are out of the competition. If you take drugs out of the competition, the penalty should take into account the effect the cheating would have had, and progress accordingly (1 year for the first offense, 2 years, 3 years…something like that). I don’t think the “one and done” argument can be applied to drugs if you eliminate the false reasons of morality, health, and level playing field. What other technical violation results in a lifetime ban? Killing someone on the track maybe? It seems extreme to me when the reality is that a third of athletes are doing it, likely more, and the only reasonable argument against drugs is that limiting them is an arbitrary constraint of the game, like any other rule.

Another issue that comes up, often in a moral context, is that the doped athletes are taking money away from the clean athletes. A simple solution is to transfer those funds to the appropriate athletes as drug bans take place. This doesn’t happen however, because money runs the sport more than morality does: you can call me a bad person, but don’t take my money! Those who pay out the money know that the funds have to be guaranteed in order to attract the best. There are also probably legal reasons why it would be difficult to recover these funds.

In the article I linked to above from Doug Logan, the author claims that 29% of athletes at the 2011 WC in Daegu admitted in an anonymous questionnaire that they had taken PEDs. Now, that’s just the ones that admitted it. Surely some would not have even disclosed it anonymously. And still others may not even know (I do think it is possible that some athletes lower on the food chain could get caught for a stimulant without their knowledge). That clean athletes are bumped by doped ones is no doubt true, although if the numbers are as high as Logan claims (or higher), it may be that you have to go pretty far down the list to find someone clean. What drives sponsorship dollars in sport is the spectacle. If the world record in the 100m were above 10sec, would Nike be willing to pay as much to sponsor the athlete who holds it? If anything, drugs in sport drive up the total dollars available to all athletes.

In Brad Walker’s second blog, he describes a rationalization for why some athletes would use drugs. Again, it comes down to money. It comes down to livelihood for many. I think he’s brave to bring it up, and I think he is right. This explanation invalidates, for me, any moral argument that might be made, or at the very least, it requires us to think individually about each case. Is it the same for me to steal a loaf of bread because I’m too lazy to pay for it (but I can), as it is for someone who has no money and needs it for food? If the only skill you have is running, and it is the only way out, is doping so wrong? This is a difficult question. I still think that the stereotypical “poor African” who comes into the sport looking for the pay day has to play by the same rules as everyone else. But if he breaks them, he breaks them for a different reason. It doesn’t make it ok, but it also doesn’t make a wealthy American sprinter who breaks the rules any more of a rule breaker, so I disagree with Walker about demonizing those athletes. “We are quick to judge, but slow to empathize” is a very intelligent bit of writing, however.

Attaching a moral element to cheating is the problem here. It’s just a rule. A rule is a rule. Athletes break rules in sport all the time: 2min for tripping in hockey. 5 yard offside penalty in football. Foul leads to a free throw in basketball. No one demonizes these players for it. Drugs are the same. They are part of an arbitrary set of rules that everyone who joins the game has to abide by. No more, no less. There’s a blurry line between what is banned and what is not. In some cases it is not the substance itself, but the amount. What was once ok, is now banned: does that make those who took those substances bad people? No, they were within the rules at the time. People need to get off their high horses. It’s just a game.

An old coach of mine, Mel Keeling, had this idea: legalize doping. Anything you want to do, go ahead and do it. But you have to declare yourself a professional, declare everything you are taking, etc. You can only compete in professional events like the World Championships and Diamond League, and other professional series. Parallel to this system, you have a true amateur system: the Olympics, if it could be wrenched from corporate hands, would be for those who had not declared themselves users. Other “Games” like Pan-Ams, Commonwealth, and Asian, would be amateur as well. Then you have, essentially, the best of both worlds: we can keep all the crazy performances that come from a combination of genetic talent, years of practice and some chemical help (because let’s be honest, you don’t get to the point where the third element is an option unless you have plenty of the first two), and we can also see what the best of humanity can do without those things. Or at least without drugs. Some athletes who are genetically endowed and have spent years training would undoubtedly join the amateur circuit. But I have a feeling most would go for the money.

To be honest, this is almost what we have today, though the Olympics are of course doped as much as the WC. But take out that top tier, and our national and provincial championships are true amateur events. We clamour for more exposure and more help, but do we really want it? Do we really want to enter that world? Some will choose to take on the top levels and are clean. I hope, and want to believe, that all our Canadian stars are in that category. I’ve had discussions with some up and coming distance runners who feel that if someone like Mo Farah or Galen Rupp (not Canadian, but not Turkish, either) were to test positive, it would shatter our faith in the sport. We hope and want to believe that distance running is pure, too. It’s not. But we want to believe it is. That’s fine.

In the end, what we do here, on the power of hard work, not enough sleep, and non-optimal nutrition, without daily physio, paying to play, (though we work on all of these things) IS pure. And we should be satisfied with that. What some people do for money has no bearing on what we do for our own personal satisfaction.