TOPIC GUIDE: Doping in Sport

"We should permit the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport"

PUBLISHED: 29 May 2015

AUTHOR: Adam Rawcliffe

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In May 2015 doping in sport hit the headlines again when the entire American 4 by 100 metre relay team were stripped of their silver medals three years after the 2012 London Olympics, due to star sprinter Tyson Gay’s drugs ban [Ref: Telegraph]. This follows former seven-time winner of the Tour de France Lance Armstrong admitting the consistent use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) throughout his career, and being the ringleader of what has been described as “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping program that sport had ever seen” [Ref: BBC Sport]. In 2013 ‘the blackest day in Australian sport’ followed a report from the Australian Crime Commission which reported widespread use of performance enhancing drugs in Australia, particularly in the Australian Football League [Ref: Sydney Morning Herald]. And evidence suggests that of 21 podium finishers in the Tour de France 1999-2005, 20 are suspected or proven to have used banned substances [Ref: Practical Ethics Blog]. Despite publicising itself as ‘the toughest Olympics ever’ on drug cheats, 107 athletes tested positive to doping prior to London 2012, and numerous athletes who passed tests throughout the games have since tested positive - including the Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova, and Jamaican sprinters Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson [Ref: aeon]. This has led many commentators to question the ability of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to control the use of illegal aids in sport [Ref: Huffington Post], and has prompted debate about whether doping in sport is in fact ethically wrong.

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What are Performance enhancing drugs, and are they safe?
The use of artificial substances or methods to enhance athletic performance dates back as far as the 776 BC Olympics, according to some commentators, where athletes would use cola plants and even eat sheep’s testicles in an effort to increase performance [Ref: Observer]. Manipulation of the body, through training, diet and the use of equipment, has always been an accepted part of athletic activity. The World Anti Doping Agency (WADA), in its 2015 Code, places strict restrictions upon substances that meet two of the following criteria: (1) they are a danger to health; (2) they lead to performance enhancement; or (3) their use is contrary to the spirit of sport [Ref: WADA]. Those opposed to doping point to the health risks associated with performance enhancing drugs, noting that anabolic steroids can cause infertility, liver abnormalities, tumours and numerous psychiatric disorders [Ref: USADA]. For example the hormone erythropoietin (EPO) thickens the blood, increasing the risk of clotting, strokes and heart failure; and some users stop being able to produce red blood cells and can become dependent on it [Ref: Telegraph]. After a Cycling Independent Reform Commission report found that “doping in amateur cycling is becoming endemic”, many now fear that amateur athletes, following the example set by professionals, will fall victim to the same health problems [Ref: BBC Sport]. There are even suggestions that child athletes in Russia are being encouraged to take performance enhancing drugs [Ref: Guardian].

Is performance enhancement a bad thing?
According to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and anti-doping commentators, performance enhancing drugs devalue athletic achievement which they define as “the pursuit of human excellence through the dedicated perfection of each person’s natural talents” [Ref: WADA]. However, enhancement can take many forms; biological, technological and chemical, many of which are permitted in sport – baseball players are permitted to have laser eye surgery to improve their eyesight, as well as ligament transplants to aid pitching speed and reduce injury [Ref: New Yorker], and enhancements like wearable technology only serve to distance us further from our natural limits [Ref: Law in Sport]. For some, such as writer Radley Balko, the concept of enhancement is fundamental to the pursuit of excellence in sport: “Ingenuity, innovation, nutrition, and knowledge about what makes us faster and stronger, has always been a part of the game” [Ref: Huffington Post]. After all, sports people train, alter their diets and take supplements so as to turn the athlete “into an improved version of his natural self” [Ref: New Yorker]. If this is the case, then why do we object to sports people using performance enhancing drugs to do this? Are performance enhancing drugs a victim of “an accident of language” which gives them a false connection with drugs like crack cocaine and heroin [Ref: CNN]? For those opposed to performance enhancing drugs the distinction isn’t a technical one, but ethical in nature - as one commentator points out, “the moral offence lies in the diminishing of the very idea of sport as a contest of merit and fair play” [Ref: CS Monitor]. But perhaps more profoundly, some suggest whilst lamenting the decline of sportsmanship, that if we were to permit the use of performance enhancing drugs, the effect would be corrosive for us more broadly, because: “Sports have always been the repository of a culture’s values, mirroring and shaping society” [Ref: City Journal].

The ethics of doping – would it undermine the ‘spirit of sport’?
Those critical of the use of performance enhancing drugs worry that the ‘all or nothing’ culture pervasive in professional sport, in which: “Second place is first loser” [Ref: Telegraph] drives the need for sportsmen to continually seek ways of coming out on top. They argue that doping undermines sportsmanship more generally, and deprives athletes of a level playing field if some choose to take drugs and others do not [Ref: Huffington Post]. An unforeseen consequence of this, they suggest, could be that permitting the use of performance enhancing drugs would only advantage rich countries who would be able to fund more advanced doping programs – further entrenching unfairness [Ref: Outside Online]. However, it is worth noting that some performance enhancing drugs are relatively cheap - a cyclist can buy enough EPO to last a season for just £1,000 when a set of carbon fibre wheels costs £2,000 or more [Ref: BBC Sport]. Writer and author Malcolm Gladwell notes that some individuals “carry genes that put them far ahead of ordinary athletes”, and concludes that, “elite sport then, is a contest amongst wildly disparate groups of people, who approach the starting line with an uneven set of genetic endowments and natural advantages” [Ref: New Yorker]. Some people, for example, are blessed with far higher haemoglobin levels in their blood than normal, allowing them to excel at endurance sports [Ref: New Yorker] - so how should we view these individuals? Do their natural advantages render competition unfair? Opponents counter that sport is the embodiment of the human will to achieve superhuman accomplishments through dedication and the sharpening of our natural talents [Ref: aeon]. Drug intervention, they argue, could reach a point where it is impossible to distinguish between the uniqueness of human achievement, and technological innovation - therefore, de-humanizing sport: “A race at 43km/h is not necessarily any more interesting than one at 39km/h but the amazement vanishes if the riders become computer game characters with infinite lives and endless energy re-ups” [Ref: Inner Ring]. How then should we view performance enhancing drugs in sport? Do they denigrate the spirit of fair competition, and dehumanise the sporting spectacle? Or is the will to overcome our natural limits what makes us human? As Professor Julian Savulescu states: “Doping expresses the spirit of sport. To be human is to be better. Humans are not like racehorses, flogged by the whip of the jockey: they are their own masters” [Ref: aeon].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Doping and an Olympic crisis of idealism

Louisa Thomas New Yorker 29 July 2016

World anti doping code 2015

WADA 1 January 2015


A doping Manifesto

Julian Savulescu Aeon 11 June 2014

Man and Superman

Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker 9 September 2013

It’s time to allow doping in sport

Ellis Cashmore CNN 24 October 2012

Why sports would be better with doping

Ian Steadman Wired 9 October 2012


Why doping is banned in sport

Tom Murray Pittsburgh Gazette 2 December 2012

Should we allow doping in the Tour de France? Or all sports?

Chris Cooper New Republic 29 June 2012

Why athletes dope

Michael Shermer Huffington Post 25 May 2012


The human race

Steven Poole Aeon 7 November 2012

Out of thin air

David Edmunds Prospect Magazine 16 November 2011


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Let’s just be honest and allow drugs in sport

James Kirkup Telegraph 4 June 2015

How bad is distance running’s doping problem?

Peter Vigneron Outside Online 19 April 2015

How doping stole my innocence

Joe Rafferty Inside the games 8 April 2015

Genetic doping is the next frontier of cheating in sports

Joe DeLessio New York Magazine 31 March 2015

Death or glory myth fuels EPO boom

Jonathan Liew Telegraph 11 March 2015

Performance enhancing drugs and cheating in mixed martial arts

James McDonald Bleacher Report 20 February 2015

Why the Russian runner scandal matters

Peter Vigneron Outside Online 15 December 2014

Sports medicine experts debate: should doping be allowed?

Scott Douglas Runnersworld 25 October 2013

Drugs in sport part 1

Marek Doyle Huffington Post 29 January 2013

Lance Armstrong confession: in any sport, drugs are drugs

Christian Science Monitor 17 January 2013

Doping in sport isn’t cheating, it’s a natural progression

Radley Balko Huffington Post 15 January 2013

Armstrong case provides a window into our collective morality

Dr Phil Skiba Velo News 2 November 2012

Stop persecuting Armstrong: time for a doping amnesty in cycling

Julian Savulescu & Bennett Foddy University of Oxford 6 July 2012

Why we shouldn’t allow performance enhancing drugs in sport

Kjetil K. Haugen 1 April 2011

Who’s afraid of drugs in sport?

Dan Travis spiked 25 June 2008

Drugs in sport: a brief history

Observer 8 February 2004

Bring back sportsmanship

Brian C. Anderson & Peter Reinharz City Journal 2000


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Germany approves draft anti-doping law

Sky Racing 26 March 2015

Armstrong says that he would still lie and cheat despite charges

International Business Times 20 August 2014

USADA label Armstrong a ‘serial cheat’

BBC Sport 11 October 2012


Out Loud, the case for doping

New Yorker 1 September 2013

Lance Armstrong finally admits doping on Oprah

Rolling Stone 18 January 2013

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