Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Should Olympic athletes be allowed to use performance-enhancing drugs?

By Michael Cook

Some bioethicists are arguing that athletes should be allowed to take performance-enhancing drugs.

The London Olympics have arrived and with them come familiar controversies over drug cheats. IOC President Jacques Rogge said yesterday that tests had identified more than 100 cheats in the lead-up to the Games. Years of tough restrictions appear to be bearing fruit, with fewer scandals every time the Olympics are held. In Athens in 2004 26 athletes were caught; in Beijing in 2008, only 14 athletes and 6 horses.

However, this may mean that athletes are just outsmarting the IOC. The 1980 Games in Moscow have been called the Chemist's Games because so many athletes were apparently using drugs -- but no one was actually nabbed.

Is it worth the effort? This is a question that involves bioethics and as usual, there are fierce controversies. The Bush Administration's bioethics commission produced a document which took a very dim view of drugs in sport.

"they are, despite their higher scores and faster times, bad or diminished as sportsmen-not simply because they cheated their opponents, but because they also cheated, undermined, or corrupted themselves and the very athletic activity in which they seem to excel."

However, it is bioethicists who endorse the use of drugs in sports who are in the headlines this week.

"If the goal is to protect health, then medically supervised doping is likely to be a better route," says Andy Miah, a bioethicist at the University of the West of Scotland in Ayr told Nature. "Better yet, the world of sport should complement the World Anti-Doping Agency with a World Pro-Doping Agency, the goal of which is to invest in safer forms of enhancement."

But the leading spokesman for making drugs freely available to athletes is Julian Savulescu, an Australian who teaches at Oxford University. In a very interesting interview in Der Spiegel, he argued that it is impossible to stop athletes from using drugs to get a winning edge. "So we have to go for the second best option, which is having an open market for doping," he said.

Admittedly this is risky, but "Boxers risk severe brain damage. Cyclists careening downhill at speeds exceeding 70 kilometers per hour risk their lives. These dangers are far greater than those connected with controlled and responsible use of drugs -- and we accept them."

As a safeguard, doping should be done under medical supervision by doctors who are obliged to do as they are asked.

"I think it is part of the doctors' professional obligation to more broadly protect athletes' health rather than saying 'no, I won't do it, that's their own problem.' They have an obligation to provide doping services, like they offer abortion services, even if they might personally object to abortion."

Der Spiegel's journalist was baffled by the comparison of abortion to sport. But Savulescu insisted:

"Pregnancy is not a disease, so abortion is no therapy. In most cases, it is a reproductive enhancement. It helps people decide when to have children and how many of them. Only a tiny amount of abortions are done for medical reasons, the overwhelming majority are done for social reasons, including in Germany. And of course, we have a whole system of regulations to prevent backyard abortions -- as we should in doping."

Source: bioedge.org