The line is getting harder to draw. Sports doping scandals have become routine, but this week's scandal adds a new dimension. Floyd Landis, who had a tentatively positive result following his dramatic Tour de France victory, was a survivor of the substance-testing carnage that preceded the Tour and which saw some of the leading individual and team contenders barred - and sprinter Justin Gatlin, who shares the world record for 100 meters, has been a leading spokesman against drug use in sport.
Considering the propriety of performance enhancement in sports encompasses a number of areas of ethics: business ethics, since money is often the incentive (although it is thought that hundreds of thousands of amateur athletes also use them); bio-ethics, since the body is being artificially modified; and, of course, sports ethics, since most performance enhancers are used in sports or in quasi-sports like bodybuilding. Many police officers also have been caught using them to perform well on fitness examinations and to perform their job.
One basic question is what sport is really all about. It is instinctive to think that spectators are interested in seeing the fastest, strongest, most agile competitors, and so a lenient attitude towards performance enhancement is guaranteed and perhaps justified. But I think the evidence is against this instinct. Sports fans want to see a competitive match-up. Women's tennis attracts audiences similar to those of men's tennis, even though women are no match for men on court. Today's heavyweight boxing matches, with some fighters in the 150-kilogram range, are not more exciting than those of a century ago when 100 kilo fighters were rare. A complementary consideration is that spectators enjoy being able to identify with the competitors - weekend athletes enjoy seeing and emulating the pros. Drug use, which doesn't interest most casual sportspeople, is an obstacle to this. So, I definitely think that the sporting establishment has an interest in limiting the use of artificial enhancements.
But there are also some contrary arguments heard. First of all, the ability to have an equitable policy is dependent on having adequate policing, and this is a question of technology, namely the horse race between drug use and drug detection. For decades, substances being abused were readily available and the ability to detect them was negligible so control was not really practical. In the last few years, astonishingly sensitive new tests gave authorities the upper hand. Over the counter supplements are easily detected, and more sophisticated techniques require the services of a few leading experts, whose connections to athletes can be tracked with relative ease. This combination led to the high-profile disclosures we have been treated to recently. However, there is evidence that the tide is turning back in the other direction. New enhancement technologies are being developed that are virtually impossible to detect, such as so-called "gene doping." Within a few years, these techniques will be used therapeutically and will be within the expertise of hundreds of ordinary physicians.
Another problem is drawing the line between "enhancement" and "therapy." Here's a simple example: A number of leading golfers (including Tiger Woods) and baseball players have had laser surgery to "correct" their eyesight. But many athletes leave this surgery with betterthan-normal eyesight. We could forbid athletes from having this surgery (currently no sport does), but it seems a little silly to bar pro athletes from an enhancement procedure enjoyed by literally millions of ordinary citizens. Another example: Floyd Landis will be barred from cycling if it is determined that he used steroids. In a few months, Landis is scheduled to undergo hip replacement surgery to repair damage resulting from a fall. Once the doctors open him up, they will do everything they can to create the most functional joint they can. It may very well be that his functioning following surgery will exceed that which preceded his accident. But he will not be disqualified from competition because he needed a new joint.
In short, as more currently arcane enhancement techniques reach the mainstream, forbidding them to athletes will be more difficult to enforce and justify. This includes gene therapy, reconstructive surgery, attention enhancing treatments and the like.
For this reason, some sports ethicists believe that the focus on enhancement is completely misplaced. Instead, the focus should be on danger. Steroids, they argue, are not bad because they make us stronger but rather that they are bad to the extent they promote disease, rage and aging. The claim is that the only valid interest of sporting authorities is to restrict dangerous substances. This may be good ethics, but based on my view of sports (as explained above) I think it is bad business.
From the point of view of business ethics and governance, I agree that no policy can be ethical if it cannot be equitably enforced. Subject to that essentially technological restriction, I think it is in the interest of fans and athletes alike to enforce the strictest practical ban on substances and techniques that are not commonplace medical treatments, even if these substances and techniques are not dangerous.
The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (www.besr.org), an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology. He also is a rabbi.