The personnel of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) must be familiar with the story of Don Quixote. Efforts to eradicate the use of doping in elite sports have been discredited as a losing battle so many times it is all but impossible to believe in an ultimate victory against the cheats. As WADA continues its crusade against the dark side of sporting life, more authorities, experts and fans start to question the meaningfulness of the whole battle.
Performance enhancing substances have always been part of sports and always will be, as will be the efforts to set limits to them and catch the wrongdoers. Lately however, the seemingly endless race between the doping industry and anti-doping agents has experienced a new shift of balance.
Recent advances in medicine have made available new ways to cure previously incurable diseases and disabilities. At the same time, new techniques of gene therapy and nanotechnology are also creating unprecedented possibilities for physical human improvement.According to many scientists and sports experts, gene doping is either already in use or just a matter of time. As a recent study by the Netherlands Centre for Doping Affairs acknowledges, it is very difficult, and in many cases impossible, to detect the use of gene therapy for sports performance enhancement. As new possibilities to bend the rules (and enhance players’ performance) proliferate, the battle against doping feels ever more hopeless. Sometimes critics go as far as to say that the useless fight against doping does nothing good and only tarnishes the image of elite sports.
What is even worse, anti-doping measures could do more harm than good for the athletes themselves. In the fear of getting caught, elite athletes may not stop using illegal substances. Instead they might opt for drugs that are not only more difficult to track but also potentially more harmful for their health than conventional substances for which WADA already has detection methods.
This is only one of the reasons why medical experts Bengt Kayser, Alexandre Mauron and Andy Miah recommend for the international sporting community to give up on the war on doping and adapt a strategy of medically supervised use and harm control of performance enhancing substances.
Adopting the measures suggested by Dr. Kayser et al would mean a radical change of approach to performance enhancement in sports. Instead of being a grey area of legal, semi-legal and illegal methods and substances, artificial performance enhancement would become acceptable and normalized in sports. In an ideal situation, the change would also clear away the cloud of secrecy and mistrust that has long overshadowed the public image of elite sports.
However, the legalization of doping, or the abolition of the whole concept, might not be as simple a measure as critics of anti-doping agents often claim. Naturally, the practical problems of controlling and supervising the use of new performance enhancing methods would become aplenty: how to prevent unscrupulous managers, coaches and doctors from not giving harmful amounts of substances to athletes? And how to define adequate amounts in the first place?
Practical problems aside, legalizing doping would present a greater problem of principle. The work of WADA is based not only on the prevention of medical harm to athletes but on the concept of “the level playing field”. The agency tries to preserve the Olympic ideal of sports, where anyone from any country or socioeconomic position can become, through his or her own hard work, an Olympic champion.
It is not hard to see how we have been rapidly moving away from this ideal in the last decades.Nowadays, to become a top athlete in almost any sport, one has to have access from an early age to good training facilities, trainers, physiotherapists and managers. The importance of such external factors comes ever greater with the professionalization and marketization of elite sports. The issue of doping should also be viewed against this background.
Two conclusions arise. First, if legalized, doping would exacerbate the inequality between athletes, because the new techniques of performance enhancement need plenty of resources. And second, the real problem in sports is not doping or performance enhancement itself, but the advancing capitalization of the sporting world. Thus, to fight doping is to fight against the growing power of and the rule of the market logic in sports.