LANCE Armstrong is the arch-villain of the allegedly extinct era of doping in cycling. The cancer survivor, philanthropist and seven-time winner of the Tour de France has been burnt at the stake, both figuratively and literally. (Well, in effigy.)
The king is dead, and so, the logic goes, is his kingdom of doping: ”So ends one of the most sordid chapters in sporting history,” wrote the US Anti-Doping Agency in its dismissal of Armstrong.
Yet the idea that the cycling world has been purged of drugs cheats is almost certainly wrong.
The investigation into Armstrong’s cheating revealed the practice was widespread. Of 21 podium finishers in the Tour between 1995 and 2005, 20 have been directly linked to doping.
Armstrong has been stripped of his titles, but his medals will not be reallocated because virtually all the second-placeholders have been found doping at some point in their careers.
Doping has for decades been an integral part of cycling, and despite a claim in 2001 by cycling’s governing body that the practice had been eradicated, cyclists continue to be caught. (The US Anti-Doping Agency has also admitted that difficult-to-detect drug products mean that ”it is not possible to equate a ‘negative test’ with the absence of doping at the current time”.)
So is it still cheating if everyone is cheating? Well, yes: it is against the rules. But rather than excoriating Armstrong – Patrick Smith’s declaration in The Australian that ”Lance Armstrong is a creep. A liar, cheat and a bully” was typical – wouldn’t it be better to ask why everyone is cheating, and why the rules are failing?
I have long argued that doping bans should be relaxed. The current ban on any drug or medical practice that enhances normal performance (rather than treats a disease) is unenforceable. And it has three perverse effects.
First, it is unsafe. There is no monitoring of the nature, dosing or administration of doping agents. The only pressure is not to get caught. Second, it is unfair to those perhaps few athletes who don’t dope. Third, it is ruining the spectacle of sport and the lives of sportsmen such as Armstrong.
What would a rational doping policy look like? First, we need to stop all investigations into past doping. It is past. We can never fully and fairly investigate who was and was not doping in the past. We should create an amnesty for past dopers.
Second, we should relax the ban on doping. Much of the fuss in the Tour is related to the use of erythropoietin (EPO – a hormone that can be used to increase production of red blood cells, improving oxygen delivery to muscles) and pure human blood. There is no effective test for blood-doping using your own blood to increase red blood cells. (Kazakh cyclist Alexander Vinokourov, for example, was banned in 2007 for blood doping – but he was only caught because he used someone else’s blood.)
But we could eliminate this whole problem with the stroke of a pen. If we allowed riders to blood-dope up to a haematocrit level of 50 per cent, where half their blood would be red blood cells, we could administer a safe, cheap, simple, reliable test on all riders. Those over 50 per cent would be out, those under, in. There would be no more blood-doping scandals. And such a level is already accepted by the governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, as safe.
What about other drugs, such as steroids and growth hormone?
Three reasons are commonly given for prohibiting performance-enhancing drugs: they are unsafe; they pervert the nature and spirit of sport; and they should be banned simply because they enhance performances.
The last reason ought to be dismissed immediately. Modern athletic sport is entirely focused on finding new ways to break old records, and most of the effective methods are legal – and far from ”natural”.
Hypoxic training tents, which simulate the effect of training at high altitude by allowing the blood to carry more oxygen, are legal. Caffeine, which improves reaction time and fights fatigue, is legal.
The other two arguments provide us with good reason for banning some drugs in certain situations. Some drugs do change the nature of a given sport, so that it changes into a less interesting or valuable pursuit. For example, one of the most interesting things about boxing is that boxers need to overcome their fear of being hit to perform well. If they took a drug that entirely eliminated their ability to feel fear, or pain, this valuable aspect of the performance would be eliminated from the sport. Similarly, when archers or professional pistol shooters use beta-blocker drugs to steady their hands, that removes the challenge of controlling one’s nerves.
Do anabolic steroids and growth hormone make cycling and athletic sports such as running less interesting or challenging? No. Steroids allow athletes to train longer and recover more quickly. Athletes on steroids still have to train hard. If every Olympic sprinter or cyclist were using steroids, it would still be the same sport, just slightly faster. And athletes would be better able to recover from injury. (Shane Warne was banned in 2003 after a swift recovery from a shoulder injury because he took a diuretic, which can be used to mask steroids.)
Finally, there is the argument that drugs are too dangerous. However, modern doping is very safe. Testosterone is a natural substance that varies from person to person. It can be given safely in small doses, which can’t anyway be detected.
And any dangers need to be put in context. Nothing in life is completely safe, not even drinking water or going for a morning stroll. Athletic sport is especially dangerous – it causes more deaths, both in training and competition, than steroids do, and it produces crippling injuries every year. Young men end up paralysed for life from playing rugby.
The biggest problem with steroids is that they are obtained illegally, and then self-administered in secret by athletes who are not trained to identify overuse or to scale their dose appropriately. We should put enhancers in the hands of the prescription system. The moral and legal responsibility for the athlete’s health would be passed from the athlete, who after all is no expert on modern medicine, to the doctor. Any doctor who overprescribed steroids, or who prescribed any unreasonably dangerous drug, or failed to detect side-effects, could be struck off the medical register.
Armstrong is not the disease. He is the symptom of the disease. And the disease persists today. It hasn’t been cured. It is part of a condition: the human condition. To try to be better.
The zero tolerance ban on drugs in sport is an example of the spectacular victory of ideology, wishful thinking, moralism and naivety over ethics and common sense. Human beings have limitations. Lance Armstrong is no god, but he is also no devil.
We should change the rules, and take Armstrong off the bonfire. There will, after all, be more like him.
Julian Savulescu is the director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.