The Ethics Of… Lance Armstrong

Yeah sure, Lance Armstrong got Shafted way back in 2012, but considering last week I christened the new year with a topic 6 years old, I’m calling this a good step forwards. It was a story that even the sport-deficient amongst us couldn’t help but pay attention to: Lance friggin’ one-ball Armstrong, THE face of competitive cycling, cancer recovery AND (technically) disabled sport, convicted of not only using performance enhancing substances himself, but also running a “massive doping ring” and pressuring fellow teammates to participate in his dirty cheating ways.

Not only did millions of people suddenly have one of their great heroes turned into a total scumbag overnight, but the entire sport of professional cycling was suddenly revealed as an utterly corrupt cheat-fest. One particular factoid started to circulate pointing out that between 1998 and 2013, of those who finished in the top 10 of the vaunted Tour De France “65% have been caught doping, admitted to blood doping, or have strong associations to doping and are suspected cheaters”. Worse, during Armstrong’s glory years of 1999-2005 that figure rises to a staggering 87%. Sure these stats include those ‘accused’ and ‘suspected’ of doping, both of which by definition mean those claims couldn’t be proven, but when you A-number-1 poster boy for the sport admits cheating is rife one is inclined to put their cynical hat on if you know what I mean.

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Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the sport.

But as devastating as Armstrong’s downfall may have been to fan, it could be this is just the tip of the iceberg. No matter how rife drug use may be in professional cycling, it’s still just one sport; consider the implications if this sort of behaviour is common in other sports as well. And it’s not like we have a shortage of examples to give that theory credence – name a sport and there’s an example of someone shooting themselves full of something to get a competitive edge. You’ve got anabolic steroids for muscle growth and repair, human growth hormone and a wide array of other hormones to boost the bodily system of your choice, stimulants to give you that extra physical or mental boost, sedatives for steady hands, nootropics for boosting your brain, adaptogens to reduce stress, painkillers to help you push through fatigue and injury, and of course the now famous process of blood doping where you extract blood, pump it full of oxygen, and dump it back into yourself on competition day.

Each of these naturally has the potential to royally fuck up the body of even a professional athlete much less us mere mortals, risking everything from acne through to depression, organ failure, growing the wrong set of genitals (yes, seriously), and of course a lethal heart attack or stroke. No surprise then that they are banned by every reputable sporting body world-wide. There’s even a World Anti-Doping Agency which enjoys greater popularity, influence and debatably power than the United Nations, boasting an iron grip on international sporting events and even able to prosecute domestic football teams for infractions against their rules. And this is all right and fine and excellent.

Right up until you put a bit of thought into it.

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My life is basically a string of these moments back-to-back.

Drugs have a pretty bad rap in society and for a pretty good reason. They’re addictive, they cause physical and psychological harm and they generally turn otherwise productive, well-adjusted people in useless cretins – let not even get started on what they do to those who were mal-adjusted to start with. But when it comes to ethics, context is king and performance enhancing drugs operate in a very different context than recreational narcotics. Let me lay it out for you:

Professional/Elite sports are by their nature, competitive. Athletes are there to win, and will hone their body and minds for entire lifetimes to do just that. This isn’t a matter of self-improvement or ‘man versus mountain’ or whatever, this is about pitting yourself against all comers, working your way up the ranks until you’re the number 1 best in the world. Why then are we even slightly surprised that the use of a substance that can give you a competitive edge is common among these ultra-competitive players? These people have already given up literal years of their life, forgone social activities, romantic opportunities, careers and entertainment that the rest of us take for granted – what’s ‘the potential risk of a health complication’ when stacked against a sacrifice of that magnitude?

It’s like asking a salesperson paid exclusively on commission to reign in their enthusiasm a bit. You can ask all you won’t mate, but since that would defeat the point of what I’m here to do in the first place, you can go get stuffed.

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“Oh but it’s unsporting”, we might protest, “why should these cheating athletes get an advantage over the others based entirely on their foolhardy behaviour?”. This is the standard line when we hear that athletes have been cheating, but much like our automatic aversion to drugs in general, it tends to fall apart when you think about it too hard. What exactly are we arguing here? That every athlete should be measured purely on their own abilities and not on advantages granted to them by external factors? That everyone should abide strictly by the rules of the game to ensure that every match is fair and purely a matter of skill and willpower?

Well that sounds lovely and all, and performance enhancing drugs do indeed give users an unfair advantage over other athletes. But you know what else does? Practically every other aspect of the sport.

Anyone remember back in the 2012 Olympics when the Australian swim team, already world leaders in the sport, turned up with their newest secret weapon? The ‘Fast suit’, designed to significantly minimise water friction on the athletes enabled them to take their performance to the next level, establishing 40 new world records. A fantastic feat of engineering, and if we stick to the same standards of sportsmanship we apply to drugs, blatant cheating on behalf of the athletes involved.

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Why don’t you just chuck a friggin’ boat in the pool too?

Equipment such as these fast suits, or the lightweight composite bikes used by cyclists, or the extremely expensive shoes for runners, or the rackets for tennis players, or any other non-standard equipment has absolutely squat to do with the abilities of the athletes wearing them. They don’t inspire the athletes to perform better themselves or create greater physical ability, they are simply engineering measures designed to enhance the existing abilities of those athletes – exactly the same way that performance enhancing drugs do.

In fact if you wanted to extend the idea, you could actually argue that since they enhance the body itself rather than provide mechanical assistance, performance drugs are more sporting than specialised equipment. They’re sure as hell a lot more accessible to the average competitor, such at the athletes from developing nations that don’t have million dollar budgets, phalanx of specialists, and entire research institutes backing them. Maybe if every participant had their equipment, training, diet, upbringing and living standards standardised we might see Ugandan, Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes dominating at more than just events like the marathon, where even fancy shoes can will only get you so far.

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Of course we’d probably just import them. It’s a long-standing Australian tradition after all.

Alright so the ‘unsporting’ argument is rubbish, but what about the safety factor? Even accounting for governments’ tendency to exaggerate the dangers of banned substances, there’s no denying that these substances are dangerous – after all that’s precisely why they’re banned and other weird practices like hypobaric chamber training are all good… for those than can afford it (more cheating god dammit).

But once again, context is king and the second you start looking at the risks inherent in elite sports themselves, crying ‘safety’ over performance enhancing drugs starts to seem a hell of a lot less convincing. Despite the image we have of our sporting heroes in the prime of their lives, the stress that elite sports place on the human body are seriously bad for you. This is less the case for Olympic track and field athletes (though sprains, dislocations and fractures are hardly uncommon), but consider sports like Australian Rules Football, American Football, Martial Arts, Boxing and motorsports, where one single round of competition could, and frequently does, cripple athletes for long periods of time. Careers in these sports are brief to say the least and often involve dozens of serious injuries over that time. Concussions, repeat dislocations, joint reconstructions, spinal injuries, and muscle tears are effectively par for the course and don’t exactly add up to an environment where safety comes first.

Sure all of these sports take precautions to protect their players from injury, but that doesn’t change the fact that the sports are inherently dangerous to start with and we still let them play. I have no doubt that blood doping could cause some serious health risks in the long term, but stack the risk of heart disease and stroke (if the process is ‘abused’) against one single round of professional boxing and it’s pretty bloody clear which is worse for athlete health and safety.

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Yeesh… but at least his blood pressure isn’t high, right?

All in all we’re left with the reality that while using performance enhancing drugs is definitely bad for athlete health, it’s both a reasonable choice in the context of ultra-competitive sport, not ‘unsporting’ or ‘cheating’ considering most sports don’t give much of a shit about those concepts to start with, and generally safe when compared to the apparently acceptable risks of the sports themselves. So how on earth can we justify banning these substances?

Much as I hate to do it, the answer is pretty simple:

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Yeah that’s right, it’s that age old trump card played by moralizing old fogies everywhere, but as trite as it sounds it’s bang on the money here. It is a well-established fact that children and adults both look up to and try to mimic their sporting heroes. Given this it is clear that the decisions that those elite athletes make influence the decisions that those people go on to make themselves. If those athletes abuse their bodies with illegal and dangerous substances, then it is both likely and predictable that some of their fans will do the same.

Now normally this would be a pretty flaky basis to tell a group of people what to do. Pull the perspective back enough and the actions of virtually anybody could influence the decisions of others, which in turn could lead them to hurt themselves. But are we seriously going to demand that nobody do anything that could negatively influence anybody else? That’d be insane. Climbing stairs is a perfectly legitimate activity for most people I’m sure we agree. But it’s possible that a drunk person or small child could see us using stairs, our activities could influence them to try it themselves, and they could do themselves a serious injury as a result. So are we going to ban climbing the fucking stairs now? Of course we’re not, because that would be stupid.

But just as context forgives a lot of the evils of performance enhancing drugs, so too can it condemn them. Our elite athletes are not just simple athletes; they are also celebrities and as such promote themselves as role models whether they like it or not. That might sound unfair – it’s hardly an athlete’s fault if people idolise them, is it – but considering that virtually all of the funding that enables elite sports is based on the popularity of those sports, the ability of those athletes to compete in the first place is directly dependant on their ability to promote themselves. Imagine that tennis suddenly became unpopular, to the point where events like Wimbledon were only attracting a dozen or so spectators each year; how long do you think it would take before sponsors started withdrawing their funding, governments stopped building facilities, the media quit reporting, prize money dropped to virtually nothing and the very best players in the world ended up competing at suburban courts? And so we see that athletes aren’t so much ‘reluctantly dragged into the spotlight’, so much as ‘completely dependent on their fame in order to make a living’.

Being a role model is part and parcel of that fame, an inescapably result of the massive promotion that funds elite sporting events. As such those athletes can cry all they want about ‘just wanting to play the game’, but whether they choose to acknowledge it or not, they have a responsibility to their audience to set a positive example.

Given this the whole topic of performance enhancing drugs takes on an entirely different and dangerous light, and not because it might be seen as ‘cheating’ or ’unsporting’ or any vague moralistic reason like that. No the danger here is that fans will be inspired by their heroes and try to mimic them – and while elite athletes may have the knowledge, support and resources to manage the risks of performance enhancing drugs, their fans absolutely do not. For those that truly aspire to their heroes’ example and get involved in the competition, the leadership of Lance Armstrong and his ilk will quickly lead them to realize that these substances aren’t just acceptable in the game but downright necessary to success. This is a textbook ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation whereby those who cheat the system prosper at the expense of those who play by the rules, forcing everyone to cheat or else be pushed out by unfair advantage of the competition.

Professional athletes are the very peak of their profession and in the context of their ultra-competitive field and the dangers those sports already pose, it is kind of ridiculous to tell them that this specific performance enhancing substance is too dangerous for them to use. But whether they like it or not, those elite athletes rely on their fame in order to compete on the level they are; as a result they hold a responsibility not to abuse that fame and lead those that idolise them into behaviours that could be extremely dangerous for those who lack a lifetime of experience in sports medicine.

The ban on performance enhancing drugs may indeed be arbitrary and condescending to athletes, but it’s not for the athletes that these substances are banned.

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