Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Drugs in sport

I just caught wind of this book Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat, and now I want it. Reading the preface on amazon, it looks to be a good one. Drugs in sports is nuanced area, despite many making it out to be a simple "do it" or "don't do it" dichotomy. From at least one review, it seems this book will provide a pretty balanced approach.

I'm surprised how few running books ever dare talk about drugs. It's a taboo subject, like America's high school approach to sex education or the US military's 'don't ask don't tell' policy. You, the athlete, are considered 'educated' about drugs if you don't take them or know anything about them. Meanwhile those in the know are abusing them left and right. If I coached a high school or college team I'd tell them everything I know about drugs and their use in sport. Problem is, I don't know that much either. As a chemist I want to know more. You'd think I'd know plenty given my background but universities are just as clueless. If it was that easy to find out good information there'd be a lot fewer cheats. My position in my own mind is clear: I don't want to take drugs to get faster (a self-defeating aim in my opinion) but that doesn't mean ignorance is bliss.

I wonder if sometimes the athletes know more than their coaches, at least in low-level sports. Waterloo's canceled football season might be one example. Fittingly when athletes go rogue and dope on their own terms they screw up. They don't know how to avoid off-season spot checks, the half-life of the steroids in their body/urine, the threshold limit of detection and what might mask the positive results. If the coach were involved you'd be sure the chance of being caught would be smaller. Expert dopers know these things and more; such individuals can cheat for an entire career. Consider Marion Jones, who passed hundreds of doping tests. I doubt she was initially well-educated in drug science, but thanks to a lot of running talent and BALCO she learned.

I'm looking forward to this book to see what new light can be shed on the subject. After watching the fantastic documentary Bigger, Faster, Stronger I learned a lot of interesting details about dope science. But I'll skip to the ending: doping is a philosophical choice. If you do it 'right' you probably won't be caught and you'll live a long and healthy life. Perhaps that's the real evil, that you'll carry your secret to the grave. Recall Ms. Jones ultimately confessed through guilt, not scientific evidence (Aside: It pisses me off that drug suppliers like Patrick Arnold got no worse prison sentences than the users).

To repeat, done properly drugs do their job, they disappear from detection, and perhaps surprisingly don't even make you sick. But to what end? Therein lies the rub. Do you do it to win? Win what? To be the fastest at a local 10k? Why not just cheat by using a bike, or switching your bib number with a pal halfway through the race? If everyone does the same, we call it a bike race or a relay. Drugs are another means to the same end only the equipment is a little harder to see. Most people compete for the glory of the race, though whether it's your own glory or those around you is hard to say. Such athletes picture themselves winning, no more. Is that enough?


  1. I wonder about the line between "therapeutic" and "enhancement" uses for drugs and other kinds of medical intervention (say, surgery, gene therapy, prosthetics, etc...).

    It seems like a philosophical question, trying to distinguish between restoring someone to their original abilities, and going beyond that.

    Clearly we care enough that the people on one side are hailed as heroes and praised, and those on the other side are reviled and thrown in jail. But really, why?

    There's an incredibly strong moral instinct when it comes to condemning people who cheat, and there's a strong consensus on what medical interventions can be assigned to either side, but it doesn't seem like there's a thorough definition of where that line is, or why it's there. Maybe it doesn't really matter why, and that's just part of the game?

    1. It's definitely a philosophical question more than a practical one to decide whether someone deserves to be jailed for possessing 'cheating' drugs. Anabolic steriods were originally designed to combat the wasting symptoms of AIDS but they're a controlled substance.

      There are thousands if not millions of as-yet undiscovered 'enhancement' drugs. The battle will never end, at least not in this lifetime.

      The pharmaceutical world is upside down. It takes years to develop/market a new drug while following strict protocol. Now small companies working faster in grey areas by adding new, (naturally?) derived drugs as ingredients in 'natural' supplements. The law is being updated at a rate so fast most people don't know the rules. See Patrick Arnold's story about newly illegal drugs here: I must admit even though I thought he deserved more time in jail, his talent in drug synthesis (and writing) is undeniable.

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