Competitive Advantage and Drugs in Sport

Sporting bodies uniformally prohibit non-medical drug use. Why? Drugs are prohibited because they enhance performance. Drugs, in brief, hold a unique place amongst all the other competitive advantages. Elite athletes have many advantages apart from drug use. Drug use however is felt to be in a different category to having specialist support teams, which include highly paid professional people. Legitimising drug use would level the playing field. Legitimisation deletes the concept ‘drug cheat’ and every athlete would know exactly where they stood. This is directly analogous to those competing against Mo Farah. They know that every ounce of ability he has has been refined to perfection by his training programmes. If they don’t have that support, and most don’t, their task is far more difficult. They are not on a ‘level playing field’ when competing against Farah.

Sports administrators regulate drug use. Medication is subject to Machiavellian debate in elite sport. Medication and compliant team doctors lead to gaming of the regulations*. The asthma drug salbutamol has become notorious due to its wide-spread use in elite endurance sports, specifically cycling and long distance running. Britain’s finest and most successful athletes, cyclist Chris Froome and track star Mo Farah, accessed salbutamol through Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE). Both athletes underwent medical assessments and were granted a TUE notwithstanding the fact that sulbutamol is a well-known performance enhancing drug. Froome and Farah were given a TUE because of ill-health associated with asthma. The TUE meant that they could compete to the best of their ability despite ill-health. Both of their TUEs have been subject to negative speculation.

Tremendous efforts are made to conceal sophisticated drug programmes and equal efforts are made to thwart drug ‘cheats’. Russia’s winter Olympic team has been banned from the 2018 Games because of systemic state sponsored drug cheating. This is significantly more important than the alleged mis-use of TUEs by Sky Team Cycling.

Does an anti-drugs policy cause more harm than good? Russian athletes, sports officials, medical staff and, probably, their government subverted Olympic drug testing. This egregious recent example makes Lance Armstrong’s extended drug use pale into insignificance. The Russians subverted the Olympic Games and Armstrong garnered seven Tour de France victories before being discovered. Retrospectively ‘clean’ losers are rewarded but on the podium were ‘defeated’. Jennifer Ennis-Hill’s World Games gold medal was awarded a few years after the 2011 championships. She didn’t have her moment of glory on the podium and the gold medal was probably less significant than if it had been awarded at the World Games themselves.

What if medication was permitted because it’s performance enhancing? Athletes wouldn’t need TUEs for ‘asthma’, nor compliant doctors and teams of PR people managing the story. Drugs would simply be another tool for professional teams to create the best outcome for their athletes. There wouldn’t be additional harm caused to athletes as many sports have risks which, on occasions, are lethal***. Sometimes training programmes are so extreme that they cause significant harm but athletes accept them as they’re driven by the rewards of elite sport****. Regulations against drugs introduce a polluting criminal atmosphere in sport which spills over into many other areas of activity.

Medication for athletes and drug use would be synonymous. Conferences could be held about dosages and efficacy and ‘medication’ for athletes would be professionalised instead of being a dark underworld of criminal behaviour. This would make the sporting world fairer. There wouldn’t be any drug cheats and it would be safer because drug use would simply be another tool in an athletes preparation.

*Sky cycling have been accused of mis-using asthma drugs Mo Farah, the British Olympic champion has also been scrutinised for use of asthma medication There is also the question of the amounts of a drug, which at one level might not be performance enhancing but with larger doses is. See





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