Performance Enhancing Drugs and the Limits of Human Nature

As far as questions of ethics in sports go, cycling has been one of the most pronounced sources of moral dilemma. While the source of the dilemmas might seem obvious it’s worth examining their ostensible roots. Sports are supposed to be fair. Fairness is typically construed to mean that no participant should have access to any means that gives them an unnatural advantage over others. Performance enhancing drugs are a widespread source of an unnatural advantage; using them constitutes an ethical transgression. The playing field is not level, so to speak.

One view of the issue regards PEDs as cheating. Some cheating is merely arbitrarily written into the rules of the sport. The baseball pitcher who uses a foreign substance on his hand is breaking the rules, but the rules could easily allow such substances to be used. The act is regarded as cheating because it is against the rules, not because there seems something inherently wrong with using tree sap on one’s fingers to get a better spin on a ball. In cycling, there are all sorts of rules about equipment and clothing. Certain kinds of wheels are banned, even shoes and socks. It’s only cheating if one gets away with transgressions of the rules in a clandestine way. But the UCI could simply allow blades on wheels, for example, and no one would think there was something fundamentally antithetical to the notion of competitive sports in the use of that technology.

But can the same be said for PEDs? Whenever the issue comes up in cycling, or any other sport, there are always a few that suggest that PEDs should just be allowed, thus concerns about fairness are bypassed. And amongst cyclists who have used PEDs themselves, many have argued that their use of PEDs wasn’t to gain an unfair advantage, but to ensure that no one else had one. The view, and it needs to be said that there is some truth in this, was that everyone was doping. One was being put at an unfair disadvantage by not doping, rather than gaining an unfair advantage. So, if everyone was doping, or if everyone were allowed according to the rules of the sport, would doping still be an ethical transgression?

Performance enhancing drugs seem different than other forms of cheating. The moral indignation induced by them is not reducible to the fact that they are against the rules. Yes, PEDs are against the rules. But there’s a deeper opposition to them. As a thought experiment, imagine that technological prosthetics existed that improved human performance. That you could get a mechanical implant in your legs to make them stronger. I doubt this would be accepted, even if every participant had such an implant.

Let’s return to the opening point about fairness. The peculiarity about talking about fairness in sport is that sports are inherently unfair. Sport seems to be one of the most conspicuous exhibitions of innate natural ability in human culture. Indeed, that is a key element of their appeal. Inequality in other realms of human society can be understood to be largely a result of a wide array of social determinants; even if some outstanding inherent individual ability is present, it is but one factor among many accounting for success – in school, or business, or careers, or relationships – and often relatively insignificant. One can easily understand how a wealthy business person and a homeless person might exchange places if their fortunes had been different, with no changes to their innate aptitudes.

Professional sports is exceptional in that it congregates so many outliers in the same place. The relative success amongst these outliers can be attributed at certain times and places to (typically marginal) meritocratic differences, or even social determinants (though the broader demographic characteristics of professional cyclists is relatively homogeneous). But the awe of watching Froome and Quintana in the mountains, or Kittel and Greipel in a sprint, or Sagan doing his thing, can be attributed to a realization that these are gifted human beings. No perfect alignment of social and environmental factors would ever allow us mere mortals to accomplish the feats of these athletes. The issue of “nature vs. nurture” (a false dichotomy to be sure) is so deeply perplexing because it seems so irreducibly complex. Sports are so captivating because in many ways it gives us a simplistic view of human nature.

PEDs sully this view. They violate a fundamental impetus of sport. Sports are supposed to be about pushing human abilities to their natural limits. This is why the thought of hidden motors in bicycles is so repugnant. It has nothing to do with natural ability. It violates the fundamental expectations of human performance, what makes it inspiring, what makes it authentic, what makes it real.

A Faustian Bargain? Pantani, Lance, and the Devil

But, as captivating as this view is, it is, as I say, simplistic. Sports are a keen reminder that genetics obviously matter, and that in some realms, they matter probably more than anything else. But one should be wary of blowing the horn of genetic reductionism too confidently. Sports are experiments that isolate certain variables over others, but they are not pure reflections of innate genetic endowment or natural physiological aptitude. Glimpses perhaps, but glimpses through a complicated lens.

Natural ability is of course part of the equation, but not in any unadulterated, pure sense that makes the use of PEDs a clear transgression of a boundary between natural and unnatural performance. The logic (and the chief empirical criteria) against banning PEDs is that they enable physical achievements that would not be possible without their use. Chris Froome’s recent Tour de France feats have been scrutinized about whether they were “within the realm of human performance.” There have been numerous attempts to objectively quantify this realm. Apparently 6.1 watts per kilogram marks the limits of human nature.

But what is natural about people riding on heavily engineered pieces of technology, wearing lab-tested garments, and engaging in a host of scientifically and technologically mediated behaviours that humans would only engage in in the context of a thoroughly socially-constructed sport? Even if we externalize the technology and say that it is independent of the human, a means to reveal one’s natural ability – in the same way a microscope reveals the deeper structure of organisms – what exactly is being revealed? Genetics and physiology are in there somewhere, but so are hours upon hours of training on machines made to shape human bodies in a particular way, training which is itself based on scientific knowledge about human nutrition, physiological responses to stress, biochemical reactions, biomechanics, all which is mediated through machines to measure concentrations of various compounds in human blood, or maximal rates of oxygen consumption, or maximum power outputs. All of this information is quantified, analysed, and turned into protocols to be fed back into the system.

PEDs are conspicuous in their boundary pushing because of their acute effects. It is a variable one can isolate among many. But take out any of the plethora of artificial factors listed above, and what kind of performance would be possible? One can extend this question beyond the arena of sports. What is natural about anything humans do? Would the limits to which humans push themselves be possible without the entire apparatus of modern society? Take away mass produced agriculture, genetically engineered foods, vitamin and micronutrient supplementation, vaccinations, pharmaceuticals, and a host of other health related technologies. Take away the systems of knowledge and technology that mediate, structure, and intervene in our lives, and what are we left with? Probably not a group of highly trained professional cyclists defined by VO2 max, watts per kilogram, and hematocrit levels.

Human beings continue to break records. Is this because we are getting closer and closer to the pureness of human nature? Or further away from it?

While I’d love to leave that question lingering, lest I be accused of condoning performance enhancing drugs, I should state that there is indeed a very compelling rationale for banning PEDs. Namely, they pose significant health risks, risks that I don’t think can be seen as an acceptable cost of merely wanting to compete in sports at an elite level. But that points to another moral quandary: If PEDs existed that posed no significant health risks, that safely expanded the realm of human ability, what would be the grounds for their restriction?

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