Ethics @ Work: Let the 'Mutant Games' begin

Doping makes you faster and stronger, but athletes would prefer to do without.

marion jones 88 (photo credit: )
marion jones 88
(photo credit: )
We are fortunate that the sporting news from Beijing has come mainly from the playing field, and not from the laboratory. Cycling coverage is always a close race between the results from the course and the results of the drug policing, but following the disqualification of a number of Russian women athletes, doping has been pretty much out of the news at the Olympics. However, the reality of doping is always looming in the background, and the spectators are left wondering, does s/he or doesn't s/he? The assumption that doping is more or less pervasive, and that the vagaries of defining and detecting it will always make enforcement arbitrary, has led a number of observers to draw a fascinating parallel between today's prohibition on doping and the previous prohibition on professionalism. Nowadays the Olympics are all about money. The papers are filled with estimates of how much a gold medal costs in terms of the infrastructure needed to create champions (it's about $30 million) and much how one is worth in terms of endorsements (often seven figures for tennis players or track athletes, more like five or six for fencers or synchronized swimmers). It's hard to believe that as recently as the 1980s strict rules against professionalism were in place. Anyone who earned money from sport (this once applied even to teachers of sport), or anyone who competed against others who earned money from sport, was disqualified. The legendary American athlete Jim Thorpe, who won two Olympic gold medals in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, had his medals stripped after it was revealed that he had played minor league baseball years before. Strict enforcement of the amateurism rules would have meant that only independently wealthy individuals would be able to compete. What happened instead was a cynical and arbitrary application of the rules. The Soviet bloc had athletes who were professionals in every sense, though their profession was usually listed as soldier or student, while the West had an elaborate system of under-the-table payments, "expense" payments, trust funds and so on. The system was a nightmare, since all athletes received money but only some were disqualified. Finally in the 1990s the system fell apart. The de facto professionalism of Soviet bloc athletes, which gave them an immense advantage in international competition, was a critical factor. The parallel to doping is expressed as follows: Just as it was practically impossible to compete on an international level in the 20th century without accepting money, so it is practically impossible to compete on an international level in the 21st century without using performance-enhancing substances. (This of course has not been proven.) The exact definition of doping is subject to dispute, just as the exact definition of professionalism is. Both can take place in secret, making enforcement necessarily arbitrary. The conclusion: Rules against doping should fall by the wayside just as rules against professionalism did. The counterargument is as follows: In the case of professionalism, almost all the athletes wanted to get money, and most of the spectators didn't mind if they did. In the case of doping, almost all of the athletes prefer not to take performance-enhancing substances, and almost all of the spectators also prefer that they don't. The athletes prefer no doping because doping regimens require a huge amount of effort and expense, and because many of the drugs are dangerous. For example, the endurance-enhancing drug EPO thickens the blood, and is the prime suspect in the sudden early deaths of a number of cyclists. Insiders tell of cyclists getting up in the middle of the night to exercise in order to get the blood moving to prevent their doped blood from killing them; obviously they would prefer getting a good night's sleep. The spectators prefer no doping because they don't care about outcomes, they only care about the competition - a level playing field. Women's tennis is nearly as popular as men's, even though the top women are no match for mediocre male players, because it is a fair and exciting game. The playing field is most level without doping. But what if it's not true? The same "arms race" hypothesis was advanced for professionalism in sport, and was proven false. Maybe the athletes want to push the envelope of the ultimate capabilities of the technology-aided human body, while the spectators want to see the tallest, fastest and strongest athletes science can provide! John Tierney of The New York Times has an interesting suggestion to test this idea: Set up an alternative "no-holds-barred" competition with no doping tests allowed. (He even gives some suggestions for names, including the "Mutant Games.") One must assume that the regular leagues will ban anyone who takes part in these competitions, even if they submit to the testing regimen, just as the amateur rules forbade not only professionals but also amateurs who competed against them. If the athletes are chafing at the testing regimen and the spectators want to see drug-aided competitors, then the new league will draw competitors and spectators; if not, then the "arms-race" hypothesis of doping will have been proven true. There is a slight problem with this test, due to the great prestige of the official events. Attempts to establish professional athletic competitions in the 20th century were unsuccessful, because athletes discovered they could make much more money in the more prestigious amateur leagues. Yet when the prestige events themselves allowed professionals, everyone was happy. I personally am strongly inclined to believe the received wisdom; that doping is a destructive arms race, and that everyone besides the undertakers would be happy to get rid of it. But Tierney's suggestion is an interesting way to see if the received wisdom is correct. Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.