Doping at the Vancouver Olympics

As the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games gets underway, the first athletes have already tested positive for relatively well-known doping substances. Many of them didn't even make it to Vancouver, having been screened and excluded in advance of the Games.

But, why should anyone care about doping in sport? Certainly, people should care about keeping the rules. After all, competitions make little sense if athletes are using different technology to bring about their performances. There's no sense in pitching a cross-country skier against someone on a snow mobile. However, most forms of performance enhancement are not like this and, in fact, permit an athlete to train harder in order to gain an edge over their competitors.

Yet, the deeper question we must ask is not about whether rule breaking is cheating; this is self-evident. Cheating is defined by the breaking of rules, whether or not those rules are explicit. Instead, we should ask what the rules should be in the first place. After all, while there may be widespread support for cleansing sport of doping, we should consider why we spend time prohibiting performance enhancement in sports when what we ask athletes to do is break the known limits of human capability. This is what elite sports require, so athletes should be permitted the use of whatever means are available to them to optimize the chance of this taking place.

It seems to me that twenty-first century sport is being pulled in two directions. The first embodies the values of the amateur athlete, who arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and whose identity characterized the first 100 years of the modern Olympic Games. This was a time when competing for the love of the pursuit was the main priority. The second pull draws us towards a lesser known, but increasingly familiar era, which is rooted in the pursuit of human enhancement and where our biological status is treated as a work in progress, not the end point of human evolution.

We have already seen the first intimations of this new era. Beyond sports, we are becoming a global community defined by our pursuit of biological self-experimentation, where we embrace body and mind modifications to aspire to an improvement in our lives. In such an age, will people still care about what athletes are using to boost their performances? Will it really matter if an athlete took a nasal decongestant that contained a tiny amount of a banned substance, given that their other technological apparatus - psychologists, nutritionists, physiotherapists, etc - will have provided a far greater performance advantage?

These two eras of sport are united by a mutual appreciation for sporting excellence; the difficulty is that they differ in how they define and evaluate this term. For the former, technology compromises and overshadows natural excellence, though at times allows for a more representative appraisal of athletic ability. Consider how running shoes protect the otherwise quite vulnerable ankle joint. For the latter, technology is constitutive of the natural athlete and becomes even more necessary as humanity approaches its natural biological limits.

Time will tell which version of sport prevails, but I suspect that history will side on the latter. It will just take some time for those technologies that we currently see as unethical to become part of every day use, before this shift in sport values is fully realized. Such circumstances may not be too far off, as already, cosmetic surgical interventions are one of the fastest growing markets. Imagine how much interest there will be in modifying when we are able to create functional surgical interventions. Athletes will then be ready for the demands placed upon them by elite sports competition without fear of injury ending a career or being denigrated by the so-called moral majority.

Prof Andy Miah will be chairing a debate on human enhancement on 20th February as part of the Abandon Normal Festival in Vancouver at W2 Media Centre. See here for details.