Why Lance Armstrong’s Doping Doesn’t Matter
Manny Ramirez. Mark McGwire. Barry Bonds. Baseball is no stranger to superstars using steroids. Sprinter Ben Johnson was disqualified from an Olympic victory decades ago. More likely than not, every sport has players who use ‘performance enhancing drugs’ – it’s just that the player’s performance is not generally enhanced to superstar status. Now Lance Armstrong has admitted to doping, and once again the world is shocked.
For me, the most unfortunate part of this whole story is that Armstrong lied to so many people for so long about doping. He sued people who ‘lied’ about his doping. He put out press statement after press statement about how he was a clean athlete. He threatened teammates and others. It’s the hypocrisy that bothers me, really. I have the same sort of scorn for politicians who blather on about family values and the sanctity of marriage after cheating on their spouse with a gay prostitute the night before. It’s not the sex that bothers me, it’s the lying.
For the moment, let’s put that aside. Armstrong broke the rules. Somewhere in the professional cycling handbook there’s a ‘no doping’ clause, just as there is in most other sports handbooks. As The Verge points out, doping can mean anything from manipulating blood through transfusions and hormones to taking performance enhancing drugs. My contention is this: A ‘no doping’ clause is a terrible rule. Not just because it’s easily circumvented by creating new drugs that aren’t on the official ‘banned’ list, and not just because it encourages athletes who want to cheat to find clever ways to evade the tests. It’s not even terrible because the extent of doping’s impact isn’t very clear. Does anyone really question whether McGwire, Bonds, Johnson, or Armstrong were excellent athletes who would have had great success even if they hadn’t been doping? It’s quite likely that all these athletes would have been very good – perhaps even great – but doping made them better. Maybe just slightly, but it was enough. The rule is stupid, because ‘just slightly’ is about to become greatly.
Whenever I make this contention, people inevitably come back with something along the lines of a fairness argument. It’s not fair to allow doping because these dopers are cheating. They have an unfair advantage. It’s not natural, etc. Yes, dopers are cheaters. If no one was doping, there would be no cheaters. This is clearly the goal of the expensive and invasive testing processes designed to detect dopers and the suspensions and revocations of awards after dopers are caught. It’s a system designed to detect and then punish, with the goal of scaring would-be dopers straight and eliminating cheaters. You know what else eliminates cheaters without the expense, invasive tests, and asterisks next to awards or revocation of medals? Allowing doping. If it’s not against the rules, then there are no cheaters. Instead of all the extraordinary measures taken to combat doping, sports authorities could get rid of cheaters entirely (of the doping variety, anyway) by deleting a couple of paragraphs.
Allowing doping largely takes care of the unfair advantage argument as well. If it’s neither secretive nor banned, then anyone who wants to enhance their performance is free to do so. It might be an advantage, but it’s no longer unfair. But I suspect that people who use the unfair advantage argument generally mean the third thing: That it’s not natural. This, I think, is the worst argument of all.
Can we just get rid of the idea that because something is ‘natural’ that it’s better? That argument is already a fallacy for cripes sake. But it’s not just that the argument is technically wrong – it’s just plain stupid. If an athlete gets sick, we don’t get bent out of shape about them taking antibiotics or Nyquil. Hell, we don’t even get mad if they’re taking steroids as part of a recovery process. Humankind’s distinguishing characteristic is arguably our ability to use tools to improve our condition. We nearly all use drugs when we’re sick. Many of us will huff steroids to get rid of a simple allergy. Is it really that unbelievable that an athlete being paid millions of dollars to do well wants to use a tool to help them become better? Why do we all of a sudden get bent out of shape about their using an unnatural substance to run better when we were fine with that athlete using the same substance to recover from a torn ACL a year prior?
It comes back to the unfair advantage argument. These athletes aren’t ‘pure humans’ or something like this, and so by taking a substance to get better it’s ruining the core of the sport. Consider this argument in two different lights.
The first light is something like: This athlete wouldn’t naturally be this good, so it harms the sport to allow her to take a performance enhancing substance to get better. Let’s take American football as an example. Ryan Fitzpatrick (starting quarterback for the Buffalo Bills) is not as good as Tom Brady (starting quarterback of the New England Patriots). As far as I know, neither of these athletes are illegal dopers, though I suspect they probably use legal substances to get rid of the aches and pains of, say, getting sacked by Brian Urlacher. As far as I know, both QBs put in a ton of work, are smart guys, and are dedicated to their jobs. That is, it isn’t the case that Tom Brady is more motivated than Ryan Fitzpatrick. Certainly the surrounding team helps Tom look better than Ryan, but if we stripped that away and just looked at their statistics in running, passing accuracy and passing distance, I think we’d find that Tom is perhaps a little quicker, a little more accurate, and has a little more arm than Ryan.
Tom, it seems, has slightly better genes than Ryan; at least for the purposes of throwing a football while avoiding large guys trying to tackle him. They’ve both worked hard, put in the effort, but Tom just has a higher capability ceiling than Ryan. It’s how he was born, and that’s fine because it’s natural. But is it really? Isn’t this really the ultimate unfair advantage? There’s nothing about Tom’s greater ability that ‘ruins the game of football’ like we might argue were the case if we found out he’d been doping. In fact, if Ryan started doping and became as good as Tom and then got caught, we’d probably say that it was Ryan who was ruining the game of football by doping, even though he only improved to the same level as Tom. Tom, through random chance, is better at football than Ryan, but Ryan is the bad guy if he uses a tool to get to the same level as Tom. What kind of sense does that make?
The second light to the natural-is-better statement has already been hinted at. Tom Brady, being a great quarterback, doesn’t ruin the game of football. Michael Phelps didn’t ruin swimming because he was perhaps the best swimmer who ever existed. Naturally great athletes don’t ruin their sport, no matter how good they are. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Lance Armstrong didn’t ruin their sports by being great either. When we were unaware of the fact they were doping, they provided a spark to their sport like we hadn’t seen before. These folks were legends because they were good, and arguably revitalized their sport. I’d even argue that most people wouldn’t even care about cycling (to the extent that anyone cares about cycling, anyway) if it weren’t for this Lance Armstrong guy who won a ton of titles. A quarterback who comes in and is better than Tom also isn’t going to ruin the game of football. Great athletes make for great sports, and doping is arguably a way to make great athletes better. Great athletes are the reason we watch the NFL instead of high school football games.
That is exactly why we ought to allow doping. If it’s legal, if it’s not an unfair advantage, and if we get rid of this silly and fallacious notion that natural is better we will have better athletes. Maybe the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and professional cycling don’t want to allow dopers into their leagues. That’s fine. Create a new league where it’s legal.
We are approaching a time where steroid doping is going to look like drinking a cup of coffee in the morning – maybe it provides some advantage, but it’s miniscule. The Daily Mail ran a story a few months ago about amazing Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen and the (extremely unlikely, imo) possibility that she was genetically enhanced. Past that claim, they did a pretty good job of explaining what genetic enhancement could look like. Athletes whose blood carried more oxygen, who are stronger, faster, and have more endurance. Athletes with quicker reflexes and more durable ligaments and bones. In short, professional athletes doing what they do, but better.
Outside of sports, some people are talking about modifying soldiers to give them superior capabilities. A decade ago, DARPA was looking into the possibility of modifying soldiers “to reduce their susceptibility to stress, sleep deprivation, fatigue, pain and blood loss while enhancing their memory and learning.” DARPA’s “Metabolic Dominance” program was covered by Wired nine years ago – and consider that we were allowed to know about that program. Generally, human enhancement is catching on and becoming more acceptable:
For its part, the National Intelligence Council expects some resistance to biomods. “Moral and ethical challenges to human augmentation are inevitable,” the Council advised. Americans, especially, tend to have deep reservations about changing people’s biology, [Georgetown researcher Andrew] Herr points out. That doesn’t mean they won’t do it. He points out increasing acceptance of cognitive-enhancing drugs among American college students. “Seventy to 80 percent of upperclassman have at least once taken these drugs illegally to get better grades,” he says. “If the younger generation in our country is more comfortable with this, then that would make the use of these kinds of things in society, and by extension the military, very different.” – Wired
Soon, doping isn’t going to mean taking a shot of steroids or getting a blood transfusion, but rewriting our DNA and making it more efficient. As soon as it’s feasible a military, somewhere, is going to embrace it. If genetic modification is acceptable for our military, then it will become acceptable elsewhere too. For instance, what happens the first time a soldier leaves the service and, say, wants to play football again like they did in college? Will the NFL let him in?
If the NFL does let this player in, they’re likely to be much better than other players – that is, after all, the point of the modification. And this athlete will be better in a way that the current doping scandals don’t even begin to approach. It might be like dropping Tom Brady into a high school football match.
That brings us to the second point. If the NFL refuses to allow the player, then surely someone will start another league. This league will be better (more exciting, faster, etc.) than the NFL to the same extent as the NFL is better than high school games. There will be no cheating as far as modifications go because modification will be specifically allowed. The advantage won’t be unfair, and there won’t be some suggestion that the athletes ought to be natural in the sense we mean now.
In less than a decade, someone will take Lance Armstrong’s place. There will be another great cyclist, because sports never stop just because one athlete got busted. Maybe this athlete will be a ‘natural’ and surpass Lance’s abilities because the athlete was lucky enough to have excellent genes. Maybe the athlete will be modified to an extent Lance never imagined. Either way, the sport will go on. Before long, enhanced athletes will become the norm, even if we still have quaint throwback leagues for unenhanced humans. Modification and doping makes sports better, and that is why Lance Armstrong’s doping doesn’t matter.