The Tour de France is considered the world’s most competitive bicycle race. Each summer top cycling teams from around the world compete in the three-week event, which sends riders on a grueling, multi-stage course through the mountainous countryside of Ireland, France, and Belgium. In 1998, the image of Tour de France cyclists as athletes at the peak of their natural abilities was tarnished by allegations of widespread performanceenhancing drug use among competitors. The “doping” scandal broke a few days prior to the start of the race when a masseuse for France’s Festina team, Willy Voet, was arrested after police found large quantities of anabolic steroids and erythropoietin, or EPO, in his car as he crossed from Belgium into France. A subsequent police investigation uncovered a wellorganized system, orchestrated by the team’s management and doctor, for supplying riders with illicit performance-enhancing drugs. The Festina team was suspended from the Tour, and further investigations by French police led to the suspension and withdrawal of several more teams. Riders went on strike to protest the investigations, and less than half of the original competitors finished the race.
French authorities are not alone in punishing athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs. From the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to the National Basketball Association (NBA) to the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), most high-profile sports organizations have taken substantial steps to crack down on doping. Stronger anti-doping initiatives are considered necessary to preclude scandals that damage the image of sports and to silence critics who contend that not enough is being done to rid sports of drugs. The IOC, for example, which enforces the rules of the Olympic Games, set up the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 1999 as an independent body charged with coordinating a consistent system for testing Olympic athletes. WADA works with international sports federations and Olympic committees and has begun conducting unannounced, out-of-competition tests on Olympic hopefuls. This practice reduces the chance that competitors will rid their systems of drugs before being tested. The list of banned substances on the Olympic Movement’s Anti-Doping Code includes stimulants, narcotics, anabolic steroids, beta blockers, diuretics, various hormones, and drugs known as “masking agents,” which are used to prevent detection of illicit substances during drug tests. WADA is also investing more of its resources in developing new tests to keep pace with the changing array of drugs that athletes are taking.
Whether or not those who contend that drug tests remain easy to beat will be satisfied by renewed testing efforts remains uncertain. Clearly, however, performance-enhancing drug testing has affected the careers of many elite athletes. Athletes who test positive for drugs at the Olympic level are stripped of their medals and records and are suspended from all competition for two years on the first offense. In 1988, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of a gold medal and was later banned from track-and-field competition for life after he tested positive for steroids. At the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, Romanian gymnast Andrea Raducan had her gold medal taken away when she tested positive for pseudoephedrine, a stimulant. American shot-putter C.J. Hunter withdrew from competition after it was revealed that he had tested positive four times for the steroid nandrolone. Scores of other athletes were also expelled from the Sydney Games after flunking drug tests. More recently, at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah, British skier Alain Baxter was stripped of his bronze medal after testing positive for methamphetamine, although an appeal is pending.
Detection efforts notwithstanding, seeking an edge over one’s opponents has long made the use of performance-enhancing drugs a part of athletic competition. A review of sports history reveals that drugs and sports have gone hand-in-hand for centuries, and surprisingly, drugs have only been banned from the Olympic Games since 1968. Explains Ivan Waddington in his book Sport, Health, and Drugs, “Performanceenhancing drugs have been used by people involved in sport and sportlike activities for some 2,000 years, but it is only very recently (specifically, since the introduction of anti-doping regulations and doping controls from the 1960s) that this practice has been regarded as unacceptable. In other words, for all but the last three or four decades, those involved in sports have used performance-enhancing drugs without infringing any rules and without the practice giving rise to highly emotive condemnation and stigmatization.” This shift from tolerating doping in sports to testing athletes and ostracizing drug cheats has been driven by several factors. Perhaps most important, technological advances in performance- enhancing drugs, beginning in the 1950s, have bolstered the contention that drug use threatens the integrity of sports. Another motivation behind the shift has been to deter athletes from using illicit substances with unknown health effects.
Consider, for example, the evolution of performance-enhancing drugs. Athletes in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries looking for chemical enhancement were stuck with the limited efficacy of stimulants and painkillers. In the mid-1950s, anabolic steroids, synthetic versions of the male sex hormone testosterone, were introduced. Anabolic steroids build muscle and bone mass by stimulating the muscle and bone cells to make new protein. Coaches and athletes saw these drugs as a major breakthrough because they enabled athletes to transcend the limits of natural ability and reach new levels of competitiveness.
The first indication that athletes were using steroids came during the 1956 World Games in Moscow, Russia. According to Robert Voy in his book Drugs, Sport, and Politics, an American doctor, John B. Ziegler, observed Soviet athletes using urinary catheters, because steroids had enlarged their prostates to the point where urination was difficult. Ziegler returned to the United States and helped develop Dianobol, a steroid that was quickly embraced by American athletes, who hoped it would level the playing field with the Soviets. As a result, steroid use became widespread among elite athletes.
Concerns that doped athletes were exercising an unfair advantage over their opponents and violating the ideals of sportsmanship followed the rise in steroid use. Explains John Hoberman, the author of Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport, “Performance-enhancing drugs have subverted this ideal [of sportsmanship] in two distinct ways. First, many athletes have abandoned selfrestraint in this regard, resulting in a crisis of conduct, such as Ben Johnson’s disgrace as a ‘cheater.’ Second, the scientization of the athlete, either through drugs or other techniques, also involves a crisis of identity. . . . To what extent can the emotional experience of competition be truly shared with an athlete who has transformed himself . . . with drugs? . . . Once the athlete has abandoned self-restraint, drug testing becomes the sole guarantor of the ‘integrity’ of sport.” Sports authorities and fans came to understand that technology would inevitably provide athletes with an endless array of pharmaceutical enhancements. Controls had to be placed on doping in order to prevent sports from becoming a science laboratory where the human spirit played second fiddle to pills and injections. It is also important to keep in mind that as of 1990, following federal legislation, the use of anabolic steroids became illegal without a prescription, and possession can bring heavy fines and prison terms for users and dealers. Breaking the law to stay competitive is regarded by many observers as a further affront to the ideals of sportsmanship.
In addition to upholding the integrity of sports by expunging cheaters, drug testing is done to deter athletes from participating in a “race to the bottom” as far as their health is concerned. If performanceenhancing drugs were permitted in all sports competitions, contend supporters of the drug ban, athletes would have to become virtual guinea pigs in order to remain competitive. And because athletes regularly take larger doses of steroids and other drugs than medical patients, the longterm health effects of such drug use are unknown. Health reports from some athletes exposed to performance-enhancing drugs offer reason for caution. Greg Strock, a member of the U.S. Olympic cycling team in the early 1990s, alleges that coaches, without his consent, doped him with steroid injections. Strock attributes the breakdown of his immune system and the end of his promising cycling career to large doses of the drugs. Christiane Knacke-Sommer, a swimmer with the East German Olympic team in the 1970s, was given regular injections of testosterone, a male hormone, without her knowledge. In 1998, she testified in a trial against her former coaches that the treatments “destroyed my body and my mind,” and permanently masculinized her physique and voice.
However, many athletes are willing to chance these health risks, and they take issue with assertions that there is something unfair or unnatural about using performance-enhancing drugs. They argue that drug use is one advantage among many, such as access to superior coaching or training facilities, that athletes may or may not have at their disposal to sharpen their competitive edge. The fact that all athletes are not starting with the same set of advantages discredits the notion that a “level playing field” can somehow be restored if drugs are eliminated. According to this view, performance-enhancing drugs are simply making up for an athlete’s natural deficiencies or quality of training.
Another argument put forth by athletes is that elite sporting events are so demanding that competing in them virtually necessitates drug use. Rev- elations that Tour de France riders were doping themselves surprised some fans of the sport, but riders who admit to drug use are more matter-of-fact. They contend that without drugs like EPO, which enhances athletic endurance by boosting the amount of oxygen in the blood, competing in the Tour de France would be nearly impossible. Nicolas Aubier, a former French professional cyclist, explains the rationale behind drug use in the book Rough Ride: Behind the Wheel with a Pro Cyclist, by Paul Kimmage: “To be honest, I don’t think it’s possible to make the top 100 on the ranking list without taking EPO, growth hormone or some of the other stuff.”
The desire to remain competitive among athletes goes a long way toward explaining their willingness to use performance-enhancing drugs. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, athletic achievement is esteemed by millions of fans the world over, who eagerly watch satellite feeds of sporting events in anticipation of the next world record. Sponsors pay millions of dollars to have their products prominently advertised at sports arenas or endorsed by athletes. In this environment, as Karen Goldberg, a reporter with the magazine Insight on the News, asserts, athletes are under a tremendous amount of pressure to perform. Writes Goldberg, “As the stakes became higher, so did the number of athletes who sought performance-enhancing drugs, spurred on by the lure of big contracts and lucrative endorsements.”
Keeping drugs out of athletic competition has only become more difficult for sports authorities since drug testing was introduced to the Olympic Games in 1968. Changing social norms and technology, which spurred the initial drive to ban drugs in sports, may end up settling the debate. Western societies have shown increasing tolerance for using drugs to enhance performance in areas of life outside of athletics. Drugs such as Viagra, Prozac, and Ritalin are now regularly prescribed to improve sexual, social, and academic performance. It may simply be a matter of time before the “integrity” of athletics no longer appears threatened by performanceenhancing drugs, particularly if safer drugs are developed. The ethical debate over whether or not athletes should use performance-enhancing drugs is one of the issues discussed in At Issue: Performance-Enhancing Drugs. Other issues include the effectiveness of drug testing, the rise of steroid use among teenage athletes, and the dangers of dietary supplements.