Yesterday’s doping news from the Australian Crime Commission raises three crucial questions for the world of sport.
First, why do athletes dope? Second, how prevalent is doping in elite and recreational sport. Finally, how far beyond sport does performance enhancement extend? You might have noticed a new acronym in their report – PIED – Performance and Imaging Enhancing Drugs. This is not the first time it has been used in anti-doping jargon, but it is a crucial signal to the broader culture of performance enhancement that confronts elite sport. Back in 2006, the American Academy of Pediatrics made clear that to just pursue elite athletes is not going to address the wider culture of doping in society and it is this part that the sport’s world still does not understand.
People dope because they want to win. They want to win because it brings rewards. Rewards increase one’s social status and capacity to live a good life. This is one version of what’s happening. Another is that athletes dope because they want to push their bodies even further and reach new limits. In this version, the reward is having transcended what others have achieved before, going beyond what we thought to have been humanly possible, and securing one’s place in history as a result.
One of the crucial omissions to yesterday’s news was precisely how prevalent doping is in elite sports. Admittedly, nobody knows, but they did say the report revealed it is more common than we were led to believe. Some figures on that claim are crucial, as is a better way of figuring out what’s really going on. It’s not easy to do, but the answer would dramatically shape the policy response, and so it should.
However, the really big problem facing elite sports is that they don’t operate in isolation from the rest of society, no matter what they might like to think. Certainly, in sports you can commit acts of violence that would be criminal outside of it, but I’m talking about the broader culture of performance enhancement that surrounds us in daily life. Whether it is a cup of coffee in the morning – or a few cups – or steroids, the so-called problem of performance enhancement in sport will never be solved without a shift in our values. However, I’m not sure that we need to change. We just need to protect people more effectively from taking excessive risks. Anti-doping goes well beyond this.
Being the best that has ever been is an aspiration that underpins people’s lives, especially when they are young and this can drive the desire to win at all costs. This may be an argument to get rid of elite competitive sport specifically or to remove competition from society more generally, but WADA won’t do that all on its own. In any case, it would distinguish this kind of dangerous competition from healthy competition. I suspect you cannot have one without the other.