Wednesday, August 23, 2006

We're asking the wrong questions about drug use in sports

By Nancy Jane Moore

There seems to be an epidemic of athletes failing drug tests these days. Reports about Tour de France winner Floyd Landis and track superstars Marion Jones and Justin Gatlin are taking up space on the sports pages usually reserved for baseball pennant races and pre-season football.

Tuesday's Washington Post was typical -- they ran a story suggesting that athletes had moved away from "designer" drugs and gone back to the old fashioned kind -- which are apparently easier to catch these days than they used to be.

And there is story after story about Barry Bonds and his chase for Hank Aaron's home run record, with many people opining that he should be disqualified because he's cheating.

But why is it cheating to take drugs?

Yes, yes, I know it's against the rules. But why?

I know of only one good reason, though it's a very good one: A lot of these drugs -- particularly the steroids -- are dangerous. They make people stronger fast, but often users get angry easily and suffer other side effects. Later on, use of these drugs can lead to serious health problems, including premature death, long after the athlete has stopped using them.

Most of the drugs weren't originally designed to improve athletic performance, after all; they were developed to treat health problems. Human growth hormone is for people who weren't born with enough of it to grow properly. Steroids in small doses can give real relief to those suffering from serious lung diseases.

But what if the drugs were safe? What if they were developed for the express purpose of improving athletic performance? What if they helped athletes develop muscle more quickly, gave them faster recovery rates from hard workouts or injury, made it easier for them to use every inch of their lung space to breathe -- and did all those things without causing serious side effects in most users?

Would we still want drug use to be against the rules? Would it still be cheating?

Back in June, The Post ran an article on "smart drugs" -- drugs young people are taking to help them concentrate while studying. Interestingly, though the article addressed the legality of the drugs -- they're available by prescription, but not everyone is obtaining them through legal channels -- and some of the health risks, no one mentioned cheating.

The article even mentioned that professional musicians have been taking beta blockers -- used to treat high blood pressure -- since the 1970s because the drugs help them control stage fright.

Why is it cheating to use drugs to improve athletic performance, but it's okay -- even if somewhat illegal -- to use them to get better grades or to win a symphony audition?

After all, the problem with the "smart drugs" is the same as the problem with the sports ones: They were designed to treat specific health problems and are being used for other purposes. Some of them probably have bad side effects that won't show up for a long time.

I'm a science fiction writer. I know we're going to develop drugs that are tailored to improve both athletic and academic performance -- in fact, we're going to get so sophisticated at this that we will have drugs designed specifically for individuals. These drugs will be safe -- or as safe as anything that monkeys with your body chemistry can be.

Will it still be cheating to take those drugs? Will it only be cheating to take them to win a world championship, but not to get into Harvard?

We need to think about this, because people are going to take them. They've proved it by taking the dangerous drugs now, in spite of all the warnings, all the testing, all the moral outrage.

I hope that the primary reason for banning these drugs right now is that they're dangerous. But as we develop safer drugs that do the same thing -- and I wish all that research now going into developing "designer steroids" that are undetectable by drug tests were actually going into developing safe drugs -- that reasoning disappears.

And then we come back to the question: Why is using drugs to improve athletic performance cheating?

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