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Friday, October 26, 2007

Anit-Doping opinion piece

Generally I can’t stand opinion articles from college newspapers—they’re almost always horribly written. But this one from the Harvard Crimson is pretty well done, at least on its surface.

If sports are entertainment to you, PEDs are a welcome improvement—heck I wouldn’t mind seeing 600 foot home runs more often, especially given the disputed nature of alleged negative effects of some PED’s. But if sports are something sacred to you, then this potentially widespread impurity must be disconcerting.
This writer clearly understands why sports fans are so deeply troubled by doping. If sports were no more than mere entertainment, then whether the people using steroids were athletes in the Olympics or actors in Hollywood wouldn’t make a dime’s worth of difference to anyone. But it does, because sports have such a a far deeper meaning to sports fans.

Yet I disagree with the central thesis of the column, that we should forgive doping because athletes simply want to win so badly:

When you approach the steroid issue from the standpoint of incentives, the real moral of the story is that athletes are just like us. The same way we all jeopardize our health up by staying up late to study, athletes are willing to do whatever it takes to be successful. And just like many of us work so hard because this what the Goldmans and the McKinseys want, athletes will say this is what their fans, their coaches, and their teammates want. Combine these more abstract incentives with the fact that there are millions of dollars on the line, and it’s reasonable that somewhat excessive measures could come into play.
I do not believe that the majority of athletes who do use performance-enhancing drugs really want to, or that they are doing it to become champions. Rather, they are convinced that everyone else is doing it and they simply cannot be left at a competitive disadvantage (as they say, don’t bring a knife to a gunfight). This is the exact reasoning cited by Charlie Francis when Ben Johnson got busted; he famously said "If anyone is clean, it's going to be the losers".

The biggest source of the problem did not come from the athletes themselves (workers) but from sport leadership (management). For a very long time, there was nothing more than lip-service paid to doping control.
WADA chief Dick Pound has claimed former International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch tried to sweep doping under the carpet to protect IOC interests.

"Samaranch wasn't interested in the issue," Pound told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Pound said were it not for the 1998 Festina team cycling scandal at the Tour de France, where officials found a carload of performance-enhancing drugs and police raided team hotels to find more drugs, things would not have changed.
Recall that Ben Johnson's name was leaked by testers who feared the news would never see the light of day. And why not look the other way? Leaders such as Samaranch or MLB owners stood to lose nothing but their honor (and even then only momentarily) and stood to gain everything they’d ever hoped for.

The athletes were (and still are) the ones taking the big risks, both with their careers and their lives. It is no different than, for example, a mining company owner enticing rank-and-file workers with the opportunity for a few of them to get well-paying jobs if all of them ignored safety rules. Viewed from this perspective, it makes sense that a former senior aide to Pres. Reagan wrote an op-ed piece for the Cato Institute critical of doping control titled "Busybodies on Steroids".

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