Armstrong’s alleged doping in the Tour de France is just more evidence that human excellence is increasingly a product of enhancement.
Mischaracterizing a fundamental change in sports as merely individual violations of the rules has serious consequences. For example, this thinking has led to inadequate research on the risks of enhancement technologies, especially new ones. Why research something that can’t be used? My anecdotal class surveys show that students have significant skepticism about the reported side effects of such treatments and drugs, as well as perceptions of bias among regulators against enhancement. As a result of such attitudes, there’s a tendency to play down the risks of some technologies. Call it the “Reefer Madness” response — ignoring real risks because you think the danger is exaggerated. This is ignorance born of prohibition.
What should be done? Past a certain age, athletes should be allowed to use whatever enhancements they think appropriate based on objective data. Providing reliable information about the full range of technologies should become the new mission of a (renamed) Anti-Doping Agency, one not driven by an anti-enhancement agenda. It wouldn’t have to be a free-for-all: Age limits and other appropriate regulations could limit dangerous enhancements for non-professionals; those that are too risky could be restricted or, yes, banned.
How? Perhaps the Food and Drug Administration could take over these duties from the Anti-Doping Agency, using its own calculus. Is the proposed enhancement technology effective? Does it hurt more than it helps? It’s doubtful that a genetic enhancement, for example, would be allowed. The field is too new. However, some supplements such as creatine, alphalipoic acid and at least some currently banned steroids would probably be acceptable.
In professional sports, normal people do not compete normally. We watch athletes who are enhanced — through top-notch training, equipment and sometimes illegal substances — compete for our amusement. And, despite our sanctimonious claims that this is wrong, we like it that way. So we do athletes a deep disservice by clinging to our whimsical illusion of reality at the cost of their livelihood. If we allow football players to take violent hits and suffer concussions so that we might be entertained, why not allow them to use substances that might cause them health problems? It’s their decision.
If you yearn to watch “purer” athletes, check out a Division III football game. Visit the minor league ballpark near you. Set up an amateur league. Better yet, train for a marathon sans enhancement.
But don’t force the Tour de France to cling to outdated ideas of how athletes pedaling for their professional lives should behave. Cyclists have enhanced, are enhancing now and will continue to enhance. In his stubborn refusal to admit guilt in the face of the evidence, maybe this is what Armstrong is trying to tell us.
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