Thursday, November 1, 2012

Why isn't doping allowed in sport?

This is actually a surprisingly difficult question to answer - why don't we allow doping in sport?

The immediately obvious answers like "it's cheating" or "it's unfair" are circular. That's just saying it's against the rules because it's against the rules. Yet at the same time, for most of us, that's enough. Of course taking drugs is cheating. Right?

In any sporting contest there are arbitrary rules about what can and cannot be done. Why can't they take a car in the marathon? Why can't they pick up the ball in soccer? Use twenty guys at once in a game of rugby league? Why? That's the rules. Sport is circular and self-justifying.

Simply put, a sport is a contest to see who can gain the most fair advantage at achieving a pointless goal within an arbitrary framework of restrictions.

There are rules against doping, but what about the massive amount of training and expensive equipment and sports science used by teams to gain an edge in the Olympics or professional sport? That's entirely allowed. Both are using money and science to get an edge, one is allowed, the other isn't.

However I don't think merely pointing out the existence of inconstencies is a terribly important point. You can't have a contest without rules and a framework within which to operate and since sport is a meaningless pursuit and we all die anyway, all the rules are silly and baseless. The question of why doping is banned is sort of the same as asking why we don't have multi-ball in the AFL. It basically boils down to "why does sport have rules?" or even "why is sport?" So it isn't the arbitrariness itself which is the issue

Nor is it that doping "destroys the fair contest" because in a fully doped-up world there'd still be a contest among people with arguably similar advantages. Doping wouldn't work if everyone did it.

So how do we justify having some things arbitrarily allowed and some things arbitrarily not allowed?

I'd argue two things. First, the very important issue of athlete safety. A world of legal doping is a world where being an athlete involves the compulsory imposition of a regime of potentially harmful drug use. That's kind of terrible, and while, yeah, they choose to become athletes I don't think that's a good enough reason to impose extra unnecessary risk.

Beyond that though (since I assume there's safe doping), I'd argue that if sport is competition within a made-up domain of "fair competition", you need pretty good reasons to expand or alter that competition space.

My possibly unsatisfactory answer is that doping is banned as unfair pretty much because most of us intuit that it's unfair. Why is that? Personally I think it's the ease of doping which creates a strong feeling that it's an unfair advantage as opposed to a fair one. Being an athlete is supposed to be hard... you've gotta earn your competitive advantages, and the idea that a simple chemical supplement can massively improve you without much effort just seems against the spirit of competition. At least with conventional sports science, it still takes time and effort.

Once upon a time, professionalism was considered a similar unfair advantage, with a split in the world of Rugby driven by it, and great athletes banned from early Olympics due to that same idea. Training regimens were considered suspect, as they got away from the idea of a pure body-to-body contest.

Clearly we don't think that any more.

I think the illustrative case about the flexibility of the rules of sport, and the resilience of sport, is to compare sports with salary caps, drafts and player recruitment restrictions to sports with no such rules. Both the Major LEague Baseball and the English Premier League and the AFL and NFL work and thrive despite diametrically opposed views about what is fair and legitimate grounds for competition. Some sports think money should be removed as an influence, others don't. Neither is right, both can work.

The only question of sport should be what is the best set of restrictions to create a good and enjoyable contest. What constitutes "a good contest" is inherently subjective.

Clearly the content of the restrictions that make a sport possible can vary as long as people accept the new playing field as legitimate. So basically until someone can mount an argument that performance enhancing drugs improve the sporting contest and defeat the existing general intuition that they're unfair, doping is banned because intuition.

Maybe at some point we'll end up with a world where people think doping to help do sport better is fine, and I'm sure sport will survive that just like it has survived professionalism, commercialisation and all the back and forth about contract freedom. But I don't think we're in a rush to get there - there's not much of a pro-doping lobby making that case.

The future of robotic body parts and chest-mounted basketball cannons, on the other hand, is quite bright.