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Doping true to the spirit of sport

By Julian Savulescu - posted Tuesday, 14 August 2007

The Tour de France is the most gruelling sporting event in the world. It is an incredible achievement for Cadel Evans to come second in a race that no Australian has ever won. But that feat is tainted by a dark cloud that now hangs over the Tour: doping.

This is not a bad El Nino year for the Tour; it is business as usual. Since 1903, riders have used alcohol, caffeine, cocaine, amphetamines, steroids, growth hormone, EPO and blood doping. Fausto Coppi, one winner, summed it up when he was asked whether he ever used amphetamines, or La Bomba, and replied, “Only when absolutely necessary”. When asked how often that precisely was, he said, “Most of the time”.

Cheating is ruining the Tour. Sport zealots take this as encouragement to ramp up the war on drugs. There is, however, a better solution: change the rules. Paradoxically, changing the rules to allow safe performance enhancers may be better for the sport, the fans and the athletes for several reasons.


First, a “zero tolerance” strategy is bound to fail. Only about 10 to 15 per cent of professional athletes are tested. Drugs like EPO and growth hormone are natural chemicals in the body. Because they mimic natural processes, they are hard to detect. Gene doping may be impossible to detect.

Relaxing doping controls means athletes are no longer cheating when they dope. This reduces enforcement and monitoring costs. Caffeine can make as much as a 20 per cent difference in the time to exhaustion among competitive athletes. It was illegal, and many athletes in the Olympics were disqualified for taking it. It is now legal and we no longer have to test for it, or eject athletes using it.

Second, relaxing the rules on doping would be fairer. Current doping controls disadvantage honest athletes who forego doping. Cheaters are rewarded.

Third, we would reduce risk to athletes. Since nearly all doping is illegal, the pressure now is to develop undetectable enhancers with no attention to safety. Enhancers are produced on the black market and administered in a clandestine, uncontrolled way with no monitoring of health. Allowing safe performance enhancers would reduce pressure to take the bad stuff. A market would grow to produce new safe enhancers.

Of course, allowing safe enhancers would not eliminate all risk. Some would still cheat, and seeking that extra advantage unsafe, illegal enhancers offer. But it would narrow the gap between the cheaters and the honest athletes: honest athletes would safely get closer to their cheating counterparts.

Fourth, allowing safe enhancement would reduce “soft coercion”. Today, athletes must take illegal, unsafe enhancers or lose. Offering safe enhancement is no more coercive than offering prize money.


Caffeine was legalised because it is safe enough. Some of the recent controversy in the Tour could have been avoided if we allowed riders to take EPO or blood dope up to some safe level, for example where their red blood cells make up 50 per cent of their blood. This level is deemed safe by the International Cycling Union and this level is easily detected by a simple, reliable and cheap blood test. Other drugs like growth hormone can be monitored by evaluating athletes' health, looking for signs of excess, rather than attempting to detect what is a normal hormone.

Dick Pound, the head of World Anti-Doping Agency is concerned about the message that allowing drugs in sport would send to children. But children today see athletes regularly cheating and risking their health by taking dangerous drugs. And what is the message which is sent by a policy of allowing safe enhancement? Improving your abilities is okay. Cheating is wrong. Your health is important. Are these really the wrong messages?

The agency also claims that performance enhancement is against the “spirit of sport”. But caffeine does not appear to have corrupted the Olympics. Athletes already radically change their bodies through advanced, technologically-driven training regimes.

Ben Johnson said that the human body was not designed to run the speeds it is called upon to run now, and steroids were necessary to recover from the gruelling training and injuries. Far from demonising these great athletes, we should admire humans who push themselves to such limits.

Classical musicians are allowed to use beta-blockers to reduce tremor and enhance their performance. The use of drugs to accelerate recovery and to enhance the expression of human ability and will are a part of the spirit of human sport. The challenge is to understand the spirit of each sport, and which drugs are consistent with this. But performance enhancement per se is not against the spirit of sport; it is the spirit of sport. To choose to be better is to be human.

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This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on August 8, 2007. He recently spoke at Sydney Ideas, the University of Sydney’s international public lecture series on “The Ethics of New Science and Human Enhancement”, co-presented by The Centre for Independent Studies. For a podcast of his speech, visit:

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About the Author

Professor Julian Savulescu is the Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford.

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