The doping allegations against Mo Farah’s coach, Alberto Salazar, gave the Telegraph’s James Kirkup an opportunity to air the libertarian view that the thing to do about performance enhancement was let it rip …
He said (among other things): “Almost every serious sporting contest on earth is decided at least in part by the participants’ resources, their access to the best training, the best nutrition, the best technology and the best support. Banning a competitor for having better chemicals than the rest makes as much sense as banning one for having better shoes. Let’s be honest and add medical ingenuity to the contest.
“Currently, doping is done by third-rate disgraced chemists operating in secret, while the brilliant minds who work for the legitimate pharmaceutical industries take no part. Allow those scientists to bring their talents to sport and we’d have turbo-charged runners tearing around the track like human Formula One cars. Thirty-stone rugby-players charging into each other at 30mph. GlaxoSmithKline’s Goliaths taking on the AstraZeneca All Stars.
“Brutal? Gladiatorial? Yes, but would it really be that different to what we have today? Professional sport is about physically-exceptional people willingly doing extraordinary things with their bodies in order to entertain the crowds. Allowing doping and the rest would just make sport more entertaining – and more honest.”
The Shed’s archives of cuttings that might come in handy one day include an essay by the philosopher Peter Singer, after yet another Tour De France scandal in 2007, which proposed a way of allowing doping up to a point, without creating freaks.
He said: “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.
“Julian Savulescu … who directs the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University and holds degrees in both medicine and bioethics, says that we should drop the ban on performance-enhancing drugs, and allow athletes to take whatever they want, as long as it is safe for them to do so.
“Savulescu proposes that instead of trying to detect whether an athlete has taken drugs, we should focus on measurable indications of whether an athlete is risking his or her health. So, if an athlete has a dangerously high level of red blood cells as a result of taking erythropoietin (EPO), he or she should not be allowed to compete. The issue is the red blood cell count, not the means used to elevate it.
“To those who say that this will give drug users an unfair advantage, Savulescu replies that now, without drugs, those with the best genes have an unfair advantage. They must still train, of course, but if their genes produce more EPO than ours, they are going to beat us in the Tour de France, no matter how hard we train. Unless, that is, we take EPO to make up for our genetic deficiency. Setting a maximum level of red blood cells actually levels the playing field by reducing the impact of the genetic lottery. Effort then becomes more important than having the right genes.
“Some argue that taking drugs is “against 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.
“In the Tour de France, cyclists can even use overnight intravenous nutrition and hydration to restore their bodies. Training at high altitude is permitted, though it gives those athletes who can do it an edge over competitors who must train at sea level. The World Anti-Doping Code no longer prohibits caffeine. In any case, performance-enhancement is, Savulescu says, the very spirit of sport. We should allow athletes to pursue it by any safe means.”
Singer’s essay can be found in full at
The Observer gave it an airing at the time.
Peter Singer is most famous for his ideas about animal rights and The Shed recalls tipping its hat to the Observer reader who wrote in to say he would be quite happy with athletes taking drug as long as the drugs were tested on monkeys first.