RIO DE JANEIRO — It’s time to junk the World Anti-Doping Agency and throw it into the same bin with Prohibition. It’s a failed social experiment that has yielded nothing but a larger form of corruption, a crooked self-dealing bureaucracy headed by a bunch of careerist drones trying to legislate a morality they themselves do not possess.
Abraham Lincoln once famously said that prohibition “makes a crime out of things that are not crimes.” WADA has done exactly that. Its short history traces the same path as American Prohibition: a raft of unintended consequences breeding new forms of sin greater than the sin it was supposed to stamp out — as the Russian doping crisis so amply demonstrates. Individual rights have been infringed on, money has been wasted, and gangsterism has flourished, while failing to protect the health of athletes. Looming over it all is a portentous bureaucracy that exhibits more pratfalls than a Charlie Chaplin film.
When officials from WADA and its parent, the International Olympic Committee, aren’t colluding with its business partner the Russian government — “It looked like you were personally helping us,” a Russian state reporter said to IOC President Thomas Bach at a news conference Thursday — they’re laughably inefficient. WADA labs have proved to be easily circumvented by holes in the wall. In June, the Rio-based WADA lab’s credentials were suspended, apparently because of technical errors giving off false positives. On the day before the Opening Ceremonies of the Rio Games, Bach windily defended the IOC’s refusal to ban Russia for its state-sponsored doping program, claiming, “We have applied a system of justice. . . . I think this is a very thorough, strict and clear procedure.”
Yet on the very same day, former WADA investigator Jack Robertson leveled accusations that WADA President Craig Reedie stalled and impeded his work.
“It was put in the hands of people with self-interest, who are compromised,” Robertson said in an interview with ProPublica.
All of which serves as a reminder that one byproduct of Prohibition was organized crime, and another was a flourishing black market and bootlegging. There has to be a better way. The question becomes: Is no system at all preferable to such a broken one?
The entire premise of WADA needs to be rethought, just as we once rethought the temperance movement. The current bureaucracy has no real idea what athletes are using or how to discern between enhancement vs. therapy and recovery. Why are we scourging athletes for using substances that Hollywood actors and female socialites use to stay young? It’s not even clear why the personal ingestion choices of athletes should matter so very much. Does WADA exist to protect the health of athletes? Or to police cheating? Those are two very different jobs.
It’s possible that legalizing performance enhancers may be the most honest and efficient thing we could do to level the playing field for all and promote better health among athletes. It’s at least worth discussing.
The prevailing wisdom among the zealous deputized amateurs at WADA is that all performance enhancers are unhealthy and wrong. This has led to showboat trials and vicious public condemnations of athletes. These aren’t getting us anywhere — except deeper into the muck of insoluble international legal questions, black markets, cover-ups and failed policy.
The argument against legalization is that it could create a system in which all athletes might be required to “dope” in some fashion as the baseline for competing. The most troubling aspect of state-sponsored doping is not that it’s cheating but that it’s a violation of human rights, individual choice and informed consent. This is the real dilemma.
But there is an equally powerful argument to be made that legalization could actually relieve the situation of athletes in such states. In the case of Russia, state pressure to dope was compounded by cases of bribery and athletes being extorted.
What about the athletes who want to compete “naturally”? We need to have a difficult discussion about what natural means any more, with gene splicing coming. Anti-doping efforts rest on a faulty premise: Olympic-level sport is not an inherently healthy or natural endeavor. World-class athletes are in the business of torturing their bodies unnaturally, altering their bodies and changing their chemistry to extremes. They starve themselves on intense diets and swallow insane mixtures of vitamins and supplements, manipulate their intake and fuels in “legal” but hardly natural ways. You can’t take a diuretic in the Olympics — but you can be anorexic.
Prohibition warped law enforcement and overburdened the court system and created all kinds of needless harm and black market poisons. The doping movement has done the same. Athletes should be permitted to consider performance enhancement as a matter of personal conscience and moderate it as they choose, with the above-board advice of their doctors and trainers. It would be a cleaner system for all.