Science writer John Tierney – one of my “must-read” columnists – has a good post which gets us to consider why it is considered so terrible for sportsmen and women to take performance-enhancing drugs, or have special surgery done to make themselves stronger, faster, more flexible, and so on. In years to come, suppose that say, a footballer has a knee operation and as a result, he is able to ride over a tackle, pass the ball more swiftly. Or a fast bowler at cricket has the same operation done to make it easier to send down a delivery to a batsman (bowlers often get injured because if they are big guys, the strain on their knees and back can be large). It seems to me that the key issue is disclosure. If you had an “anything-goes” games, with sports folk free to do what they wanted, there could be no complaints about cheating. And the boundaries between what is and what is not considered okay are not clear cut anyway, but they are more readily solvable than just adopting a puritanical zero-tolerance approach on enhancements. I cannot also help wonder whether some of the constant sniping at sports folk for taking drugs is not so much about cheating per se, as about taking the drugs in the first place. There is a sort of desire for “purity” in sport which is a part of the more general puritanism in our culture.
Like I said, the key is disclosure. If any cyclist, swimmer, footballer or for that matter, F1 motor racing driver takes drugs as part of their sport, then it should be okay so long as they disclose it. One could always use a handicapping rule anyway. For instance, if a motor racer is taking a drug to enhance his concentration during a race, maybe the race organisers can impose a 5 second penalty.
As medical technologies progress, this issue is going to become more pressing. Rather than continuing to hold out against any of this, the sports world should focus on disclosure and be adult about it.