Tiger Woods was legally blind without his glasses or contacts, until he underwent laser eye surgery to improve his vision to 20/20. Did this treatment improve his playing? Woods says it did. Was it unethical? Most people would say no.
When it comes to enhancing athletic performance, where, then, is the line between laser eye surgery and anabolic steroid use? Certainly there is a broad spectrum between the two, but at what point does performance enhancement stop being acceptable?
This was one of the many questions raised by the panelists Friday at a Center for American Progress event. Michael Werner, President of The Werner Group, postulated that for many Americans the line of unacceptability is drawn at chemical enhancements, as opposed to surgical or equipment-based ones.
Arthur Caplan, Director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, argued that drugs and even drastic equipment improvements can undermine continuity, something we value in our sports. We can no longer compare modern sports heroes to stars of the past (or even to their own prior performances) if modern athletes artificially enhance their performance.
The natural limitation of humans, Caplan says, is what differentiates between a “performance” and an “exhibition.” While we might be interested in watching jumping competitions between two men with rocket-boosted legs, we probably wouldn’t consider it sport or attribute the winner’s victory to his training or athleticism. Consider the baseball player who uses drugs to enable him to hit massive amounts of home runs. In his case we lose the sense of baseball’s history and cannot clearly distinguish what part of his record is athletic performance and what is exhibition.
Another concern about doping is safety. Gary I. Wadler, M.D., chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List and Methods Sub-Committee, presented statistics showing that children are using anabolic steroids younger and younger in order to ape their heroes. High school athletes especially turn to steroids as a response to intense pressure to perform from parents, coaches, and scouts. Caplan said that this pressure amounts to coercion when applied to adults who could otherwise be assumed to have free choice.
Noah Walker, a consultant at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and a former professional baseball player, confirmed that the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs makes it very difficult to compete because the players who use are often heavily rewarded with playing time and lucrative contracts.
One major problem is that, even if legislators and health officials could agree on what types of enhancements should be illegal, most of them are incredibly difficult to detect. A recent Nature article, “The Science of Doping” reports an unacceptably high false-positive rate in the types of drug tests that Olympians take in Beijing.
Yet testing for enhancement will likely become more difficult. Wadler and Caplan both agreed that the enhancement of the future will be “gene doping,” something we will probably encounter before the 2012 Olympics. Drugs may be difficult to test for accurately, but imagine testing athletes for tweaked DNA or extra cells. Clearly, we need better science to test for doping if we want to preserve the sports we love.
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