Saturday, July 23, 2016

An Answer To Athletes' Doping?

Lessons From the 'War on Drugs'

Update, August 6, 2016: I have a confession. Some of the blog posts at FromDC2Iowa are triggered by a news item, some follow a considerable amount of research, others are simply the sharing of an idea floating through my brain -- the motivation for this one on July 23. To the best of my memory I had never before read of a proposal to deal with athletes' doping by simply eliminating the prohibition. It was just a brief idea that I thought worth sharing.

This morning [August 6], while making coffee, I caught a bit of the discussion on Bill Littlefield's "Only a Game," on NPR. A guest was expressing some of the same ideas regarding doping that I'd written about here a couple weeks ago. With a little research I tracked down an article that guest had written. I'm always pleased, rather than disappointed, to find that an "original" idea of mine has occurred to professionals who really know what they're talking about.

Here are some excerpts from Patrick Hruby's article:
Doug Logan had seen enough. For years, he had served on the front line of the sports war on performance-enhancing drugs, first as the commissioner of Major League Soccer, and later as the chief executive officer of USA Track and Field. For years, he believed in the fight. . . .

This was a war, Logan began to realize, with few victories. . . . In an online [2013] column titled "May the Best Meds Win," he called the sports war on drugs hypocritical and unwinnable. A quagmire. . . . If athletes break criminal laws, then let them face the consequences; otherwise, let them decide what's best for their bodies.

For decades, the sports world's response to PED use has been . . . : zero tolerance. Police and punish. No retreat, and certainly no surrender. . . .

However, a small group [has] started to challenge that view. The war on doping, they contend, has done far more harm than good: wasting money, retarding medicine, fostering corruption, and trampling on athletes' rights and dignity while failing to protect their health. The ongoing Russian scandal . . . resulting in at least 111 Russian athletes being banned from Rio -- is not, to them, a meaningful victory. Rather, it's a sign of ongoing defeat. Sports keep fighting. Drugs keep winning. Wouldn't it be safer, rational, and arguably more honest to end PED prohibition? To permit, study, and regulate the drug use that already happens regardless of the rules?

-- Patrick Hruby, "The Drugs Won: The Case for Ending the Sports War on Drugs," Vice Sports, August 1, 2016


I'm not proud to say it. It wasn't a matter of health concerns or rigid discipline. As a licensed lawyer and public official at the time there was no alternative -- even while living as a hippie-public official. Illegal drugs could not be a part of my life. And so it has been to the present day.

That doesn't mean I'm a fan of our "War on Drugs." It seems to me that it has just promoted more crime, not less. It has, thereby, probably contributed to more deaths from the use of guns than from the use of drugs. Moreover, because there's no quality control of illegal drugs they cause even more deaths. It's occasionally involved our government in the cocaine trade. Not only has it cost taxpayers billions of dollars, it has kept the government from collecting taxes on drug sales, like it does with alcohol and tobacco. On occasions when it produced a dip in supply, it's simply driven up street prices and financial reward for drug traffickers. It has made America number one among nations in percentage of incarcerated citizens -- including more blacks working as prison laborers today than once worked as slaves.

In 2001, Portugal repealed all criminal penalties for possession of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. Fears of increased consumption proved unwarranted. Health services for addicts were cheaper than incarceration. There was a drop in teens' drug use, and HIV infections from dirty needles. The number of addicts seeking treatment more than doubled. See, e.g., Maia Szalavitz, "Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work?" TIME, April 26, 2009.

This all came back to mind while reading the latest episode in sports' longest-running drama: the unsuccessful efforts to prevent athletes doping to improve performance. This time the accusation is that Russia has a state-supported doping operation that threatens to ban all of its athletes from performing in the forthcoming Olympic games. There has been so much written about what The Guardian calls "The Russian Doping Scandal" that it has devoted an entire section of its Web site to links to the stories.

Doping has been going on for at least 2000 years. ("The use of drugs to enhance performance in sports has certainly occurred since the time of the original Olympic Games [from 776 to 393 BC]. . . . [A] viscous opium juice [was] the drug of choice of the ancient Greeks." Larry D. Bowers, PhD, "Athletic Drug Testing," Clinics in Sports Medicine, April 1, 1998.) No wonder stopping it has proven to be an unwinnable challenge in virtually all sports, and from high school, to college, to the Olympics, to professional athletes.

As for the Olympics, The New York Times reports, "Results from the second wave of retesting [brought] the total number of implicated athletes to 98. The new results affected 30 athletes from eight countries who competed in four sports in Beijing, and 15 athletes from nine countries who competed in two sports in London, according to the I.O.C. . . . Revelations of a government-run doping program in Russia have called into question global sports’ antidoping system, as well as sports officials’ willingness to expose drug offenses. . . . [I]n a cat-and-mouse dynamic, both testing methods and doping methods have gotten more sophisticated, with those seeking to beat the system devising new ways to skirt detection." Rebecca R. Ruiz, "Russia’s Paralympic Team Is Facing a Ban of Its Own," The New York Times (online), July 23, 2016, p. A1.

The UCLA Bruins Coach Red Sanders' saying (often erroneously attributed to Vince Lombardi), "Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing," describes the attitude of many coaches, athletes, fans, and sports reporters. That being the case, why should anyone care about doping? Equipment changes enhance performance -- from pole vaulting poles, to baseball bats, golf clubs, and their balls. These and other techniques are not deemed unsportsmanlike, even though they make it difficult to compare yesteryear's record books with today's.

Doping is different. Since it is banned, those who do it anyway are considered to have cheated their way to an unfair advantage. In contests where hundredths of a second can make the difference between a medal winner and an also ran, it's the individualistic equivalent of an entire team conspiring to throw a game. But many things are done to enhance performance -- training in the scientifically most efficient way, training at a higher altitude (gaining an oxygen boost upon return), or controlling diet. Athletes who can devote their full time to training will enhance their performance over those who cannot.

Like illegal street drugs, doping can also involve overdoses, and the use of impure and untested substances without quality control. Need athletes be protected from themselves? Injuries and death can occur in many sports; athletes "assume the risk," both legally and morally. One of the more dramatic examples are the brain injuries from football. Education programs may be desirable, but shouldn't adults be otherwise as free to do their own benefit-cost risk assessments of doping as of any athletic or other risk?

Perhaps organized athletics, including the Olympics, should consider abandoning anti-doping efforts that have proven ineffective -- certainly in insuring that every competing athlete is clean; that encourage subterfuge, lying, and risks to athletes' health, and ever more sophisticated efforts to design difficult-to-detect substances. Perhaps they should consider the sports equivalent of the Portugal approach. Let doping join the list of things athletes and their coaches can use to enhance performance -- using drugs that are regulated and used under the supervision of medical doctors and pharmacists.

Given the widespread practice of doping in all sports, the results would be little different from today. But it would be safer, less deceitful, and create a more honorable and level playing field for athletes, coaches, and fans alike.

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