There's a Legal Remedy To the Doping Issue

By Sally Jenkins
Friday, October 12, 2007

Personally, I have no problem with performance enhancers, particularly in liquid form. Don't get me wrong, I'm no Peggy Lee, who once said, "I always start around noon, in case it gets dark early." But I'm a cheater when it comes to certain substances, and chances are that you are, too, only most of us don't know it or won't admit it. Among the things I try to cheat: death, time, reality and writer's block.

Ever taken a little something from over or under the counter to keep your eyes open, or to help yourself sleep because you have a big day at work ahead? Or maybe the sore knee or a tricky back sent you to the medicine shelf. Which is not to say we're all a bunch of Mrs. Robinsons. It's just to say there's another way to look at the "drug cheats" in sport, and it's an eye-opener. And we've already established how much I like those.

Zealous federal prosecutors and the deputized amateurs at the World Anti-Doping Agency would have us think all performance enhancers are unhealthy and wrong and there's no other way to see the issue. Actually, there is a persuasive argument that athletes should be allowed to use at least some of these banned substances. Why are athletes the only hardworking professionals not allowed to enhance their performances, or to avail themselves of the most powerful medicines for their ailments, which is what many of these "drugs" really are? Lawyers win or lose cases often based on how many hours they can stay awake preparing. Try telling them they aren't allowed to take pseudoephedrine if they get a head cold.

"Show me an industry in which the vital players don't try to take every opportunity to give themselves even the slightest competitive edge, and I'll show you an industry that doesn't exist any more," Will Leitch of writes in his forthcoming book, "God Save the Fan."

WADA is not working. Drug use has not been curbed, much less cured, at the elite level, while at the high school level upwards of 10 percent of boys may be using steroids, according to some estimates. Instead of solutions, we have showboat trials and vicious public condemnations of athletes such as Marion Jones. These are saddening, and they aren't getting us anywhere, except deeper into a vortex of bad law and science, black markets and failed social policy. During the home run chase, I excoriated Barry Bonds for everything from his collar size to his surliness, and I was wrong. What's needed is not sweeping judgment, but freer and more sympathetic discussion of the alternatives.

One alternative is the "libertarian" approach: legalize performance enhancers. Bite the bullet and say that what an adult athlete ingests should be a matter of personal conscience, not federal courts.

Perhaps the most often voiced objection to legalization is that it sends the wrong message to the kids. But there are a multitude of things we don't want kids to do in society, starting with smoking and drinking, yet we don't outlaw them.

"Unless you're going to make the whole society kid-proof, then you have to accept some things," says David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute.

The second-most compelling argument against legalization is that it could create a system in which all athletes might be required to "dope" in some fashion if they wanted to compete at the world level. What about the athletes who want to compete "naturally"? But maybe it's time to draw that line, and say that realistically it's a defining choice world-class athletes already are making; it's the new version of professional vs. amateur.

Anti-doping efforts rest on a basically faulty premise: That elite sport is an inherently healthy endeavor. Well, it's not. World-class athletes are in the business of torturing their bodies unnaturally. According to Mark Sisson, a former anti-doping official in the sport of triathlon, the consequences of training at that level is the dead opposite of physical well-being.

"Most people don't realize it, but training at the elite level is actually the antithesis of a healthy lifestyle," said Sisson, who is also a founder and owner of a nutritional supplement company. "The definition of peak fitness means that you are constantly at or near a state of physical breakdown."

He adds: "It's ironic that the professional leagues and the IOC, the ones who dangle that carrot of millions of dollars in salary or gold medal endorsements, are the same ones who actually created this overtrained, injured and beat-up army of young people. They don't care. These organizations then deny the athletes the very same drugs and even some natural 'health-enhancing' substances that the rest of society can easily receive whenever they feel the least bit uncomfortable. If you walk in a doctor's office and say, 'I feel terrible, I can't work,' he says, 'Let's fix you up.' "

All sport is an effort to alter the body and change its chemistry. Nice as it is to believe that it should be a matter of pure hard work, just look at how athletes starve themselves on extreme diets or swallow insane dosages and mixtures of vitamins, manipulating their intake and fuels in "legal" but hardly natural ways. You can't take a diuretic without getting a ban, but you can be anorexic. What sense does that make? You get a sanction for using EPO, but you can artificially -- and legally -- raise your red blood cells by 2 or 3 percentage points by sleeping in a $20,000 altitude tent, which is not especially good for you, and that's if you can afford and find one, which a lot of athletes in Africa or Central America can't.

"So how is that fair to anyone?" Sisson asks.

Steroids without proper medical supervision can be harmful, which is why they're classified as controlled substances by the government, legal only with prescription from a doctor. But Sisson believes athletes should have some access to them, given the extreme nature of what they do. Doing away with the current anti-doping rules would at least allow athletes legal medical access to what he calls "therapeutic use of these systems, most of which were originally designed to enhance health and are available to general population." It might actually be healthier -- and less unfairly criminalizing -- than the current system.

What you think of legalization depends on whether you prefer no system to a broken one. You may find these arguments outrageous or crackpot, but they deserve an airing, no matter how violently you disagree with them. The biggest flaw of the current totalitarian system is that it ignores all minority opinion and thereby fails to recognize its own weakness and misses the chance to find creative cures for them.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company