A while ago I wrote a brief summary of Taylor Branch’s excellent article on the “NCAA cartel”, which outlines the a majority of the problems of the NCAA. Today I get to tackle another controversial subject that is often poorly understood: doping.
A broken record
At the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, Canadian Ben Johnson won the illustrious Men’s 100m dash, setting an impressive world record and taunting his competitors by raising his arm before he crossed the finish line. Johnson’s time of 9.79 seconds crushed the existing record of 9.95. But Johnson’s record was stripped from the books after he tested positive for the steroid stanozolol, which was on the International Olympic Committee’s list of banned substances. Johnson was also stripped of his gold medal and was suspended from competition for two years. He was reinstated in 1991, but when he tested for excess testosterone in 1993, Johnson was banned for life. Johnson’s illegitimate and unofficial record would remain unbroken until 2002, when Tim Montgomery ran a time of 9.78 seconds during a competition in Paris. Not surprisingly, Montgomery was also found to have used banned substances, and so Montgomery’s record was wiped out from the official books as well. It wasn’t until 2005, when Asafa Powell ran a time of 9.77 seconds, that the official world record bested Johnson’s 9.79 seconds.
What isn’t as widely known as the Ben Johnson story is that Carl Lewis – who had been awarded the gold medal that had been stripped from Johnson – had also tested positive for a banned substance, although he got to keep his gold medal. In fact, of the eight runners in that 1988 100m Final, five (Johnson, Lewis, Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell, and Desai Williams) eventually ended up testing positive for some kind of banned substance during their careers. So why was Johnson the only one to be punished after that race? In fact, why don’t we go one question further: if the use of banned substances is so common, and the best athletes keep testing positive for banned substances, why are steroids and other performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) banned in competitions across the globe?
The three arguments usually given in support of a ban on PEDs are the following:
- PEDs are unnatural and diminish athletes’ achievements (the ‘unnatural’ argument)
- PEDs users have an unfair advantage over non-users; a ban removes that advantage and creates an equal playing field (the ‘equal playing field’ argument)
- PEDs are unhealthy and can damage users; a ban protects athletes’ health (the ‘health’ argument)
I find these three arguments to be quite unconvincing. In addition, I find that the following arguments support removing the ban:
- the improved entertainment value without a ban (the ‘entertainment’ argument)
- the cost of anti-doping measures, including testing (the ‘cost’ argument)