Should Performance-Enhancing Drugs Be Allowed in Sports?

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Why you should care

Because the great sports debate over medical and technological breakthroughs is here to stay.

Our question this week: Should performance-enhancing drugs be allowed in sports? Let us know by email or in the comments below.

Have you ever reached for that extra cup of coffee to get through a grueling workday? Maybe you heard a hotshot co-worker close another deal over his headset and felt the need to catch up. You needed — or at least you thought you did — an extra kick to boost performance when the going got tough.

Now, what makes that any different than an athlete using performance-enhancing drugs?

The problem with comparing Joe Schmo’s espresso-boosted sales quotas to, say, Barry Bonds’ Winstrol-laced claim as the greatest baseball player of all time is that many more variables exist in sport. What side you take in the debate over performance-enhancing drugs in sports depends on values, explains Francisco Javier Lopez Frias, a sports and ethics professor at Penn State University. “It comes down to ‘what should we value most?’” he says.

In a sports arena riddled with so-called cheaters, it can be hard to tell when cheating becomes trying.

Lopez Frias explains that while some people believe that sport is about cultivating excellence, and inspiring us to become better people, others contend that it is merely a mechanism to push ourselves, to break records and progress the limits of human nature. “If [the latter] is the case …” says Lopez Frias, “maybe it is not so bad to use performance-enhancing drugs, as long as the drugs do not change the sport itself.”

Cycling has encountered problems involving engineering enhancements, with some less ethical cyclists installing hidden motors in their bike frames. “Sport is about using our physical skills to overcome a challenge,” Lopez Frias says. “This is an example of an enhancement that eliminates the obstacles that athletes must overcome.”

Beyond that, the world of performance-enhancing drugs is much muddier. Take baseball, the sport that made steroids and human growth hormone (HGH) famous, and it becomes clearer why advocates for the legalization of performance-enhancing drugs exist. For decades, a culture of drug enhancements — from “greenies” to steroids to HGH — has been cultivated in the sport. If an athlete wants to make it to the majors, it’s a given that he’ll have to beat PED-using opponents to do it. And, in 1998, when Barry Bonds saw juiced-up Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire race to break Roger Maris’ single-season home run record, there was no way he was about to let them knock him off the throne. Bonds had already proven to be the best player in baseball off steroids; then he decided to be the best on steroids too.

But the drive to use performance enhancers in baseball is deeper than pride. For most players, it becomes a matter of livelihood. And according to one legend, cultivating power has become the most guaranteed route to a meal ticket in baseball. “The agents today have convinced players that they’ll be paid if they hit 25-plus home runs,” says Pete Rose, MLB’s all-time leader in hits. “They don’t care if a player strikes out 190 times. But if you put the ball in play and make heavy contact, you’re going to hit more home runs.”

In a sports arena riddled with so-called cheaters, it can be hard to tell when cheating becomes trying. Is it wrong to take the necessary measures to be the best and sustain a long career? For now, that remains up for debate. “Legalization would require consent from all parties involved,” says Lopez Frias. “For organizations like MLB or the World Anti-Doping Agency, there are too many outside interests at stake.”

So what do you think? Should we make all sports a substance abuse free-for-all? Let us know by email or in the comments below.

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