Let Them Take 'Roids!

By Kyle Munkittrick | January 26, 2011 9:21 am

Floyd Landis wants to legalize doping in professional cycling. His argument is a reasonable one. Landis argues that, since everyone is doing it already and the tests will never keep up, might as well just legalize and regulate it instead of banning it entirely. Other cyclists and the governing bodies of competitive cycling have all but called Landis a complete nutter. Charges of doping brought against other cyclists, particularly Lance Armstrong, are met with refutations of “innocent until proven guilty.”

While I agree that doping should be allowed for cyclists, I disagree with the reason Landis gives:

You got to go about it another way and you’ve got to legalise doping. They [the testers] are so far behind in the testing organisations that there’s no way to change it now. Just accept that it’s here, that it’s not going away and that it’s just going to get more complicated and the fact that it’s not that complicated yet compared to what it will be. Ten years from now it’s going to be four times as hard as it now to test for things.

Laws and ethics are not based on what is easy and what is hard to control. They are based on standards of justice and what is ethically right. The reason I believe doping should be allowed is that I see nothing unjust or wrong about professional athletes using chemical compounds and medical knowledge to improve their abilities and performance. Let me rephrase that: there is nothing wrong with taking steroids.

The concern over professional athletes misusing steroids is always framed as some lone juicer injecting himself in his bedroom so he can get that extra home run. That’s not how it happens. Even illegal doping is under the watchful gaze of a team of professional athletic doctors, trainers and nutritionists. Do you think Floyd Landis mixed up his hyper-complex, nary-undetectible designer steroids and blood doping techniques in a lab in his basement? Or maybe he purchased all of his doping gear from a shady fella who hangs out at the track after midnight? No. Clearly, Landis (and every other competitor, probably) had assistance from highly trained professionals working to ensure he would be stronger, better, faster, with minimal risk to his overall performance and health.

Steroids are dangerous. But so are thousands of other prescription drugs for which we require doctor supervision. The only ethical reason to ban steroids if they are dangerous and harmful even when used properly. To say doping is wrong because it’s against the rules is circular, yet that’s what most arguments come down to once one is unable to prove steroids are harmful if used properly. Let’s stop pretending that most professional athletes 1) aren’t doping and 2) that they aren’t under strict supervision when they do. Let em take ‘roids.

Image of speedy cyclists via roy_appleyard on Flickr Creative Commons

MORE ABOUT: doping, sports, Steroids

Comments (16)

  1. To some extent I agree with you, in the sense that athletes already legally take advantage of science based advances in exercise, nutrition, and equipment. The “not natural” argument doesn’t really hold water. And, really, neither does “unsafe” considering what athletes already do to do themselves. But I still have issues with it for a couple reasons. 1) the effects of steroids and especially new drugs upon the body and later health may not be known for a long time and the athlete may not have any way of knowing or understanding the risks/sacrifices s/he is making (in contrast, the dangers of careening down a hill strapped to a luge or permanently destroying your knees while running are comparatively straightforward). 2) Underage athletes. They already face an enormous and unhealthy amount of pressure at a younger and younger age, having untold consequences on still-developing bodies and brains. I assume you would still want doping to be illegal for minors, but if it’s already prevalent how much worse would it be if it were legal in the mainstream and how much more pressure would they fact to take steroids?

  2. Grim

    Tracey proves a valid point. The main reason you cannot legalize it is because of children. If you start taking it at a young age you’re body will not devlope properly. I’m sure if roids were legal, and every professional athlete was using them to enhance their abilities then children would begin using them thinking that they would be able to get to that level. You have to draw the line some where. Keep it banned.

  3. GAC

    On the main topic: I think the ease of control SHOULD be a factor in how we determine laws (ethics are a little thornier), as should be the benefits and risks to society — I will not use terms like “ethically right”, which itself must be defined. In this case, I agree to an extent with Kyle about regulating these drugs, but for different reasons.

    There are a couple of points to think about here:

    1) It is often easier to regulate something in the open than to completely ban it. There are, of course, many exceptions, but in most cases I come down in favor of legalizing and regulating.

    2) Regulation could actually ENHANCE safety. As it stands now, we can’t be quite sure that the sports medical professionals Kyle mentions really have the athlete’s long-term interests at heart. Even under regulation, they could get pressure from coaches and team owners for putting short-term gains over long-term health of the patient, but at least if we make doping legal and regulate it we can set some sort of standard to prevent that kind of abuse.

    Ultimately, I can’t really give a firm opinion, as I don’t have that much knowledge about the doping techniques in question or their risks and benefits. But I do lean toward the side of regulation.

    @ Grim: Younger athletes are already taking these drugs, at least as early as high school, and possibly earlier in some cases. Banning them does not stop that, and it may be more dangerous for these kids as they may be taking things with less supervision.

  4. Tracey makes good points but doesnt take into account the things no athletes do and their life long effects. How about working 12-14 hour days and minimal rest, that will kill you over a lifetime quicker than steroids. How about parents who live on and feed their kids fast food on a daily basis. Thats’ll kill ya sooner than drugs will. People make choices every day that affect only them and many not in the interest of longevity. The act of training like a pro in itself is probably shortening ones life as it is. But we all make the choice, quality or quantity and its unfair to force people to make your choice. I say let ’em race. Right now WADA is nothing more than a money making scam to steal the riders salaries. Like traffic tickets if you drive faster than the speed limit.

  5. Sean

    I’m a cyclist and huge fan of the sport and all its disciplines. The drama of bike racing is exceptional, and I want to see the best cyclist overall- smarts, strength, tactics, and timing win the race. What I don’t want to see is the most-drugged rider or the rider with the most money/pharma sponsorship/best team doctor win.

    Not only does doping skew the playing field, it also skews the feeder system. The kid with the most access, not necessarily the most talented, will be the one getting sponsorships and noticed by the coaches. The same logic can be said of equipment, and there’s a reason why there are standards for bike frames and component selection: ex. Great Britain spent $250k to develop one prototype bike FRAME for the 2002 (I think) Olympics. Aerodynamics, weight, materials… all tested and tweaked to be the lightest and fastest. And then you have a country who sends one rider to the Olympics on a budget of $20k for flights, accommodations, AND 5-year old bike technology. If the strongest rider is on the slower bike, in a race of hundredths of a second, 4 or 5 pounds of bike or a little more aerodynamic drag can be the difference.

    The problem I see with the “anything goes” approach is just what Tracey mentions- the possible ramifications to the athletes later on. And the last thing I want to see is another Tom Simpson- a cyclist dying on the biggest day of the Tour de France in HD with a motorcycle camera 3 feet away to catch the “spectacle”.

  6. We do not hesitate to immerse children’s brains in ice buckets of psychopharma and speed (e.g., adderal). They go obese and diabetic (psychopharma) and their teeth rot (dry mouth). One can only guess at the cumulative effects upon developing brains (“Rot your veins, rot your brains, cucaracha! Frank Zappa PSA after being busted).

    What objection can be raised to consenting adults participating in somatopharma? Bricklayers develop callouses and muscles. Are they counseled? Ballerinas destroy their toes. Do they get blue parking stickers and orthopedic shoe subsidies?

  7. Riley

    I think the argument that adults can’t do something because it might influence children is illogical.

    We already have different sets of rules for adults and children. Adults can drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, drive cars, have access to pornography, gamble, gun ownership, etc…

    How would adding steroid use to the list of regulated behavior allowed only for adults really make a difference?

  8. Solitha

    I’m a little puzzled why one would think we could realistically hold athletes to regulated steroids if we’re unable to keep them off altogether.

    I only see two ways…

    One, changing from ban to regulate suddenly makes the testing that’s not working, work. I can’t even find a logical starting point in that assumption.

    Two, changing from ban to regulate suddenly makes the athletes who have been flaunting the rules, strictly abide by them. That’s as ignorant as saying repealing Prohibition wiped liquor violations out of existence.

    That’s not even considering the possibilities once you go beyond human vs human to allow chemical enhancement. What then is the justification against other oh-so-small enhancements? Even with a line drawn, what about the athletes that want to compete on an even field based on natural, trained ability? Do they just get kicked off to the sides because they choose not to “juice” and thus can’t be seriously considered for sponsorships or teams?

    “Allowing” drug use in athletic competition is, in reality, basically the same as requiring it. And that is an ugly, ugly step to take.

  9. Kyle Munkittrick

    Wow! Lots of good, clear, cogent arguments here. Thank you! A couple responses.

    1) First, regarding the “what about athletes later in life” argument, my honest answer is that this is the job these people chose. Professional athletes always put their bodies on the line, and took a huge risk in making the commitment to become athletes often at the cost of other skills. My personal opinion is that general athletic culture, while great for team building, communication, fitness, and socializing, is also often very destructive and misleading. The fact that most college athletes are mediocre or failing students is tremendously offensive and depressing to me. If a pro career doesn’t work out, most very good amateur athletes discover their investment does not pay off, because they lack any other marketable skills.

    2) The “what about the children” position is a classic argument for keeping any substance completely illegal/banned. In the case of steroids, there are three points of refutation. First, is the point Riley made, that we have lots of examples of one set of rules for adults, and a second set for children (e.g. drinking, porn, renting a car, etc.). Second, is that making something totally illegal often prevents “safe usage knowledge.” Safe usage knowledge is often mistakenly seen as a gateway to dangerous behavior (i.e. safe-sex ed leads to teenage sex). Thus, by keeping steroids completely illegal, the youth who do use them are using them in an information void, making their behavior doubly-dangerous. Third, and most important, is that the more our culture accepts steroids and other performance enhancers, the less stigma surrounds the behavior and the easier for coaches, family members, and friends to know who is using and who isn’t. If a young person is using, but is not ashamed or afraid of getting in trouble, it is easier to make sure that person uses correctly.

    I recognize each of those points has its weaknesses, but it is extremely hard to generalize something like athletics and enhancers for non-adults. You can’t protect kids and teens from everything or make sure every decision is correct. The best we can hope for is good information and transparency. No one ever stopped a determined teen with a set of rules.

    @Solitha Why is requiring drug use an ugly step? I do not understand arguments that idealize athletics as some noble pursuit. It’s a physical and mental competition in which every advantage, from stadium acoustics to the chemical compounds of shoelaces is scrutinized. Whether an athlete is chugging Gatorade, getting oxygen on the sidelines, injecting cortisone into their joints or blood doping, I don’t see how one enhancement is better or more tolerable than another. And yes, if you choose not to juice, you likely would get kicked off the team, just as someone who refused to train, to adhere to the nutritionist’s diet plan, or listen to the coaches instructions would be kicked off.

    You’re talking about some Platonic Ideal of Sport where Greeks wrestle in the nude. I’m talking about today’s billion dollar industry where the few athletes who do succeed are entertainment icons, while the millions who never quite make it lead lives of desperate mediocrity because they put all their eggs into a very demanding and very fragile basket of athletic ability.

    Eager for your further rebuttals.

  10. Bob Loblaw

    It forces consideration of why drugs are illegal in the first place. Presumably there is some cost to society from using them (lost productivity, crime, broken families). Do athletes using steriods under close medical supervision or students using Adderall to study harder and get better grades fall into that catagory? There seems to be a difference, but it’s hard to articulate how it should be handled. Legalize all drugs? Probably not. Legalize the drugs that aren’t “fun”?

  11. Sean

    Kyle makes some excellent points, and brings up another point about marketable skills- personally I wish the pro leagues (especially American- NBA/NFL, etc.) had college graduation as a prerequisite. And the “children” are already being “educated” about the pros of drug use while the cons get swept under the rug. I imagine the same would happen if they weren’t banned. Medical supervision/guidance is only as good as the ethics of the doctor involved, and it’s being proven again and again that is suspect.

    The idea that all enhancements are relatively equal is flawed. We’re talking about percentages- Gatorade, oxygen, cortisone…. all minimal advantage. Blood doping (and all of its chemical cousins) is putting someone on another level. This again speaks to my equipment argument- there have to be regulations somewhere, and the science is there to show where those methods stand.

    What we should be aiming for is sport that is as close to nude Greek wrestling as we can get- where the athlete, not doctors, money, or drugs, is the force behind the competition.

  12. Simon DelMonte

    Thank you for this post. Thank you for not following the party line on steroids. If we are to be ready for the complex ethical debates of the next century as medicine and all science race forward, we have to abandon the simple minded prohibitions of the present day. We might still decide to ban PEDs and gene therapy and what have you. But if we do, we still need to have a mature debate built on the understanding of the science behind it.

  13. Solitha

    Kyle, maybe I am just being idealistic. So go ahead, let them juice up. Let’s also let them have bio-enhancement surgery, pull out some of those failing muscles and put in spring-based technology, add microchips… you know, whatever works. Mech, anyone?

    Heck, just toss the whole “meat body” out of the equation and make it all robot-run.

    I agree with Sean: “What we should be aiming for is sport that is as close to nude Greek wrestling as we can get- where the athlete, not doctors, money, or drugs, is the force behind the competition.”

    All professional sports should really be, is the organized, codified form of one kid challenging his friend, “Hey, I bet I can do ______ better than you can!” “Oh yeah? You’re on!”

  14. Jeff

    At least 95% of steroid users are not competitive athletes. They are hobby trainers using the drugs for physical enhancement. Making use of these drugs a felony has driven their use underground. This has greatly increased the danger as most of the drugs are now produced without controls for safe manufacture.It has also made it highly unlikely that there will be proper medical supervision and testing done. Prohibition is in fact responsible for most of the danger current involved in using steroids

  15. Gary

    Ethically right? Legal because it doesn’t cause harm? You mean like alcohol and cigarettes?

  16. Robert

    If performance enhancing drugs only affected the individual who takes them, then I might agree. But it essentially tells those who choose not to take them that they may not participate. It gives too much of an edge to those who are willing to risk their health with these drugs.


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