Why Sport's Zero-Tolerance Stance on Performance-Enhancing Drugs is Wrong

Packets of Mildronate (Meldonium) medication in Moscow, Russia.
Packets of Mildronate (Meldonium) medication in Moscow, Russia, June 9. WADA moved meldonium from its 'monitored' to 'prohibited' list at the start of 2016, most notably catching out tennis star Maria Sharapova. Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty

Cheating is wrong. Winning by cheating is fraud.

In 1913, Eugene Christophe cheated in the Tour de France. A race vehicle crashed into him, causing his front forks to snap. Instead of repairing them by himself, he cheated by having a small boy pump the bellows for him while he melded them in the local blacksmith's fire. He broke the rule of the time that dictated the cyclist himself had to repair his own bike.

Of course, today that is not cheating at all. When Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil) was thrown into a fence by a media car during the 2011 Tour de France, his team was able to replace his broken bike. He carried on, bandaged up by race medics as he went. And this year, when Chris Froome was the victim of a race motorbike driving too close in crowded conditions, he went up to the line of current rules by running with his bike while a replacement could not reach him. He went onto win the overall race again, of course.

The values behind the original rule were reasonable: pitting one man and his machine against another, limiting the effect of wealth in providing mechanics and replacement bikes, and so on. And as every weekend warrior knows the faster the bike, the more it punctures and cracks. There is a tactical trade-off to be made.

But there is nothing wrong with the rules today either. They limit the extent to which mechanicals and incompetent race vehicles decide the race, and focus the result on the rider himself in his struggle to be the best. Those are also reasonable values, and ones which many would agree are fairer for the athlete, and more interesting for the spectator.

So why do we cling to our zero-tolerance rule for performance-enhancing drugs?

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) claims that this rule embodies the spirit of sport, which it expresses as a list of values:

• Ethics, fair play and honesty

• Health

• Excellence in performance

• Character and education

• Fun and joy

• Teamwork

• Dedication and commitment

• Respect for rules and laws

• Respect for self and other participants

• Courage

• Community and solidarity

But instead, the rule has led to intrusive and prurient invasion into athletes' bodies and lives, with humiliating testing protocols and leaked medical data. It has led to widespread mistrust and scapegoating: when the rules on meldonium changed at the beginning of the year, Maria Sharapova was infamously caught out for using it, but WADA allowed an amnesty for lower doses after 172 athletes tested positive for the drug.

Rules are frequently enforced patchily because applying them systematically and thoroughly would be unaffordable. One estimate put the figure at $30,000-40,000 AUD ($22,440-29,920) per athlete per year. Testing labs have often appeared incompetent, with Rio, Beijing and Doha labs all recently suspended. Recent reports into Russia proved what we all knew: that there is no level playing field in testing worldwide. Some athletes know they will not be caught by their agency, others take the wrong over-the-counter supplement and get pilloried.

I have argued for a new set of rules, based on a new set of values. Those values are athlete safety, and maintenance of the human test. By this I mean that we should ban substances that are risky to athletes, and which mean that the resulting performance significantly loses its human element. This might depend on the sport: a beta blocker might be inappropriate for an archery competition where nerves of steel are part of the test but fine for a weightlifter who gets a little nervous in large crowds. It might also limit the extent of doping rather than the type. If a cyclist improves his blood values by altitude training or by the drug EPO, the outcome is the same, as long as it does not go too far (beyond normal physiological limits) and become dangerous or super-human. We could then focus our limited resources on values that matter.

The rules of sport are designed to protect the athlete and to build a structure within which we can have some confidence of a deserving winner, whose talents in a certain area have been tested against the others.

They will always be somewhat arbitrary: on December 31 2015, when Sharapova took her meldonium, it was legal. The next day it was not. Australian modern pentathlete Alex Watson was banned for taking caffeine, whereas Chris Hoy brought his own coffee machine to the London Olympics.

But if we created an independent body, with a smaller, tighter remit to prevent doping that went beyond the natural physiological limits, or otherwise risked athletes' health, we would be providing athletes with a framework they can build on instead of a martyrs' pyre.

Julian Savulescu is uehiro chair in practical ethics, University of Oxford.

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts