Opinion Change – Judgement and Decision Making

Allowing Performance-enhancing drugs in major sport to ‘level the playing field’
November 2, 2010, 5:10 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

For professional athletes, triumph in athletics can provide a high just as potent and addictive as any achieved using narcotics. In professional sports, the pursuit of this high (standing victorious over a defeated opponent) often consumes even the world’s fiercest competitors. Residual notions of fair play, espoused by youth league coaches and well-meaning parents during the athletes’ formative years, are replaced by the overriding pursuit of the fruits of victory. Professional sportsman and women are driven by the desire, the need, to win (Whitman, 2007).

Often times, this desire or need to win must come at some cost. This is where at times athletes feel pressured into using anything at their disposal to get them over the finishing line first. The use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in the modern Olympics is on record as early as the games of the third Olympiad, when Thomas Hicks won a marathon after injecting himself with strychnine (An extremely poisonous white crystalline alkaloid, used as a poison for rodents and other pests and typically in medicine as a stimulant for the central nervous system) in the middle of the race. However the first official ban of stimulating substances by a sporting organisation was introduced until1928 by the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) (Savulescu, Foddy & Clayton, 2004).

Most people believe that the use of drugs to boost sport performance is definitely not new, but what some people may not comprehend is that these substances are becoming increasingly  more effective and readily available. In 1976, the East German swimming team won 11 out of a possible 13 Olympic events. The substances were so effective that at the time they could not be detected and did more than aid, but drove these athletes to the wall first. Yet despite the health risks, and despite the attempts by International Olympic Committees (IOC) to eliminate the PEDs from sport, their use is known to be widespread (Savulescu et al. 2004). It is to that extent that nowadays when an athlete does get pulled up for a banned substance it hardly raises an eyebrow (Savulescu et al., 2004). Extending on this, in 1992 Vicky Rabinowicz interviewed small groups of athletes. It was found that Olympic athletes, in general, believed that most of the successful athletes were using banned substances (Rabinowicz, cited in Savulescu et al., 2004). So what this demonstrates is that since the 1976 Olympics to when this study was conducted, not only the athletes but the world in general had become accustomed to performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports.

Unfortunately, due to this acceptance of PEDs in sport, the desire to win has seen athletes are forcefully guided down a path of taking advantage of these substances to help them win, by the culture we live in. Today, elite athletes earn tens of millions of dollars every year in prize money alone, and millions more in sponsorships and endorsements. The lure of success is great. But the penalties for cheating are small (Savulescu et al., 2004). Adopting a cost vs. benefits schema we see there is a high prize for the winner/successful athlete (high benefit) vs. the insignificant low penalty if the athlete is caught cheating (minimal temporary ban). Combining the enormous rewards for the winner, the effectiveness of the drug and the low rate of testing all aid to create a cheating “game” (Savulescu et al., 2004). No wonder why many athletes adopt this view that if something can make them go faster, jump higher or run longer to get them on the podium in first why would they say no, if at the end of the day that is all the supporters want to see!

There have been numerous failed attempts to uncover ways in which to reduce substances like performance-enhancing drugs in professional sport. Scientists like Kjetil Haugen have found that unless the likelihood of athletes being caught doping was raised to unrealistically high levels, or the payoffs for winning were reduced to unrealistically low levels, athletes could all be predicted to cheat at some point in their career. This is a crucial finding that suggests that the environment that we live in is no longer necessarily breeding success, they are raising junior athletes who are coming through the ranks to see that these performance-enhancing drugs are the solution to realising their ultimate success. The moral of this story is that ultimately, performance-enhancing drugs in professional sport are negatively stigmatized as cheating by the public. The rest of this essay will be structured to give you reason to question your beliefs, regardless of whether you think they should or should not,  about why we must allow performance-enhancing drugs in professional sport to level the playing field.

So here the best way to start this would be to ask, ‘What do you really believe anyway?’ or ‘Would the inclusion of performance-enhancing drugs really be a bad option for sports, typically the Olympics?’ Generally an uninformed audience would jump all over this topic without actually deconstructing the current operations of the Olympics and what drugs- be it legal or illegal are already involved. After consulting with a senior Australian Olympic swimming team coach, a more broader understanding of the topic was uncovered. There are those who are quick to say PEDs in sport would defeat the purpose of the Olympics, but some say that it could allow for a more even playing field. Often in preparation for Olympics athletes embark in numerous strategies to improve their techniques and their anaerobic and aerobic abilities (Senior Aus. Swimming Coach). This often includes taking athletes to high altitude training locations for weeks on end at the high cost to the countries sporting organisations. The alternate to this is already being used under the table and has had some form of preventative measures put in place to stop its use. Known as Epogen (recombinant human EPO), the purpose of this drug is to create the similar effects athletes get when training in high altitude climates but at a much cheaper rate. To put it into comparison, sending athletes off to these locations costs tens of thousands of dollars to the countries (most of whom are developed countries, or those who can afford it for each athlete) whilst in general and at the time of writing this article, Epogen on a monthly basis would cost an athlete $135 Australian and should be taken cyclic for a 6month period to produce the same effects. Ultimately this means that it allows more if not all to actively engage in the same practises, i.e. levelling the playing field in the sport. So to reiterate if your answer to ‘What do you really believe anyway’ the fact that you based your answer on the availability heuristic that you held on ‘drugs in sport being bad’ demonstrates that your opinion may have been held at face value, therefore giving you some food for thought.

Continuing on perhaps a follow-up question could be, ‘How well based is the opinion that I already hold?’ If after initially reacting to the question like most others do and assuming that of course PEDs in sport are bad, why is this so? To generalise often times people hold opinions on things without ever knowing why they feel the way they do. In other words they base their opinions on personal experiences they had quite some time ago, when in reality they may no longer be as relevant as they first seemed. Perhaps talking about the Olympics example people believe that it will take away from the idolised ‘fairness in sporting competition’ motto that most people adopt. However, without actually realising it the opinion they hold can quite as easily by counter-argued.

The thought that the introduction of PEDs will not allow for a fairness in sporting competition is a topic of long discussion. In reality the introduction of PEDs WILL allow for a fairer playing field among competitors because as discussed in (Savulescu et al., 2004) sport is already a genetic lottery. As the saying goes ‘White men cannot jump’, this just illustrates how biased genetics are to sport. For example black African Americans do better in short-distance events because they have superior muscle type and bone structure. Likewise, Africans (Kenyans/Ethiopians) are genetically pre-determined to succeed in long-distance events because of the altitude of their terrain and the ability of their body to disperse oxygen throughout their muscles over longer periods of time.

These are just examples of the ways in which sports are already handicapped towards those with the better genetic make-up. If PEDs were obtainable to all and at the price already shown to be more affordable than other techniques to do the same thing what harm would this have on giving everyone a chance to succeed. A side note on this is obviously should there be any limits? After consulting with obvious ambassadors for performance-enhancing drugs in professional sport, a former retired bodybuilder no longer competing, has shown that the PEDs can be taken, and taken safely if they are followed within guidelines. So for the introduction of PEDs in sport, obvious guidelines must be set up about how they are to be taken safely and effectively to reduce injury or death resulting from sport. Savulescu et al. (2004) have suggested that guidelines should be set up for holding safe competing levels in each individual sport. For example in the cycling world which often times athletes are caught using EPO to increase the oxygenated blood flow, a safe level of  0.5 PCV (a type of scan used to measure oxygenation of blood) would display the level the athletes must fall within to compete fairly and safely. Again this is a topic which will require the reader to assume that perhaps the view they hold on drugs in sport may not necessarily be bad and potentially with the introduction of a limit to the amount of the substance athletes can take, the introduction of PEDs will allow for fairness among performance quality of all athletes whilst all athletes remaining healthy.

By now if you still believe that perhaps there is evidence to suggest that PEDs in sport may not necessarily be that bad the next point to ask yourself would be, ‘How strong is the data, that has been presented?’ Now is where it is necessary to re-look at what data there is that surrounds performance-enhancing drugs in sport to help demonstrate why their introduction will not be detrimental to sporting competition, like competing in the Olympics. Many high profile athletes such as Linford Christie have come out and said that since their ban from competing because of the use of PEDs, there has been and always will be a continued increase in the amount of new and readily available substances that are being developed. With experimental studies conducting to show improvements in performances, and the fact that there is no way to test for a drug that still has not been finalised, without allowing all athletes to go out and use these non-lethal performance-enhancing substances we have seen that only those with access (via money) will raise to the top of their sport. Christie said that, ‘athletics is so corrupt now that I would not want my child doing it’. This just reinforces the ideology that the PEDs in sport are currently so ingrained in the sporting society that unless you are taking advantage of them, you as an athlete are being left behind. So you must begin to contemplate a) if the drug is not bad for the athlete and b) if limits are placed on the drug, why not legalise it so that there will no longer be only a small section that gain access to the drug, meaning all athletes can compete in the same sport, levelling the playing field.

The use of non-harmful performance-enhancing drugs has become so widespread that the Australian Sports and Anti-Doping Association have said that it is near impossible to maintain an up-to-date list with all the substances currently being used to boost individual athletic performances. In 1988, International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch suggested that athletes be allowed to use non-harmful performance-enhancing drugs to compete in major sporting events such as the Olympics. He argued that people need to adjust to changing times and as stated by Savulescu et al. (2004) with guidelines in place to protect the athletes in the safe use of non-harmful performance-enhancing drugs the welfare of the athlete must be our primary concern. If a drug does not expose an athlete to excessive risk, we should allow it even if it enhances performance. Many authors have demonstrated as shown through Savulescu et al. (2004) that the crusade against drugs in professional sport has failed. After all performance enhancement is not against the spirit of sport – more so it is the spirit of the sport.

Surely by now, you are beginning to believe that the introduction of non-harmful performance-enhancing drugs will not be a bad thing for professional sport, but in reality it could actually help to level the playing field. You have heard support for this argument including; if limits are put in place to provide a protection for the athletes health and tests are put in place to monitor well-being of the athletes instead of trying to find cheaters PEDs can and will be used safe and effectively by all. The genetic lottery as stated early will no longer play as a significant role as it previously did. All countries and nations will have access to the performance-enhancing drugs because they will no longer be explicitly sold to those athletes who can provide the pharmaceutical companies with the most amount of money for creating new and undetectable drugs. Last but not least when questioned on, ‘Should performance-enhancing drugs be legal?’ the head of the IOC Juan Antonio Samaranch (whose main ideology of the committee he supports is to provide a equal playing field for competitive sport) embraces that drugs in sport will not go away and the introduction of non-harmful performance-enhancing drugs will be a positive thing. Why do we all continue to disallow a level playing field for all?


Rabinowicz, V. (1992). As cited in Savulescu, J. Foddy, B. & Clayton, M. (2004). Why we should allow performance enhancing drugs in sport. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2004, 38, 666-670

Savulescu, J. Foddy, B. & Clayton, M. (2004). Why we should allow performance enhancing drugs in sport. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2004, 38, 666-670.

Whitman, J. H. (2007). Winning at all costs: using law & economics to determine the proper role of government in regulating the use of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports. Law Review: University of Illinois. Vol. 2008.


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