‘Make doping legal for all’ contrarians cry

Disgraced: Some of sport’s most fêted champions have been exposed as drug cheats.

For years Russian athletes cheated in the majority of Olympic sports due to a state-sponsored programme of doping. Rather than banning Russia, what if doping were made legal for everyone?

Only experts using microscopes could see the marks. But they were on every single bottle of a randomly selected group. They revealed a major story: someone had tampered with Russian athletes’ urine samples.

On Monday, a report outlined the implications of the discovery. Russian security agents had smuggled the samples out of the laboratory and replaced them. This allowed doping cheats to take part in the ‘vast majority’ of summer and winter Olympic sports, and win dozens of medals, between 2011 and 2015.

Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), called it a ‘shocking and unprecedented attack on the integrity of sport’. Yesterday the IOC announced it was considering a blanket ban on Russians for next month’s Olympics in Rio.

Doping — using a banned substance or method to gain a physical advantage — is one of competitive sport’s gravest sins. Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was banned for life for systematically doping for over a decade. In the last two years tougher punishments have been introduced at both global and UK levels.

But it has not always been this way. It is said Greek athletes used hallucinogenic mushrooms and opium in the ancient Olympics, while Roman gladiators used stimulants to gain an advantage; the Mexican Tarahumara tribe took peyote to increase their endurance.

Track and field authorities banned stimulants in 1928. The list of forbidden substances has since steadily increased, but doping has become more sophisticated. Blood doping, for example, is increasingly common. And many athletes gain advantages through entirely legal means.

This has led to calls to allow performance enhancing substances. Torbjörn Tännsjö in The Boston Globe has outlined a ‘moral case’ for the move; in The Financial Times, Clive Cookson has attacked the ‘misplaced sense of moral outrage’ behind doping rules. And Telegraph columnist James Kirkup says: ‘We should allow all of them. Not just drugs either: gene therapy, DNA modification, the lot.’

Dopey idea?

Great idea, say proponents. Sport already involves unfair advantages, notably a genetic lottery and the better training, diet and equipment in rich countries. Many sports already involve risk, but officials trust adults to make their own decisions. Dangerous substances could be regulated and fans could enjoy a more honest contest.

It would be awful, respond opponents. Aspirational young people would face a choice between their careers and their health. Sport would become like WWE wrestling, where many participants have died young. It is reasonable to differentiate between changing your body naturally, through discipline and effort, and taking an unfair shortcut.

You Decide

  1. Would you seek an unfair advantage in something you care about if you knew you would get away with it?
  2. Should the Olympic authorities allow doping?


  1. Work in groups of three. List factors which give people an advantage in sport (for example, height or diet). Discuss: Which advantages are fair? Which are unfair? Should action be taken to make the unfair ones fairer?
  2. The IOC has asked you to submit a two-page report on the merits of current doping rules. Present the case in favour of a ban, the case against it and your personal opinion.

Some People Say...

“Rules do not obstruct great competition: they create great competition.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not an athlete. Does this affect me?
The ethical questions around this issue could affect any other pursuit which interests you. For example, if a group of people gains an unfair advantage, should you reconsider the rules? Doping laws are also partly designed to protect idealistic youngsters from making overly risky choices. Do you think this is needed, or an unnecessary limit on your ability to act for yourself?
Does it matter who cheats? I just watch the Olympics.
If people are not following the rules, the sport you watch could be a sham. One person could have an unseen but unfair advantage over another. You may see people win medals who years later have them taken away — denying their more honest rivals the chance to celebrate their achievement in front of a global audience.

Word Watch

Agents disguised as sewer engineers smuggled out the samples, undid the tamper-proof lids without breaking the seals and replaced the urine with samples from weeks earlier.
We already knew Russia’s track and field competitors had widely doped, and corrupt officials covered it up. This report showed the same was true in many other sports.
Events affected include London 2012, the 2013 athletics world championships and the 2015 swimming world championships.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) doubled its ban for a first major offence to four years. UK Athletics has outlined plans for life-bans.
Strychnine (and even boar’s manure potion!) were used to help in competition.
A tribe famous for long-distance running.
A mind-altering drug derived from cactus.
Use of steroids grew in the 1960-70s, of hormones such as EPO in the 1980s.
Blood doping
Injecting oxygenated blood to boost endurance.
Legitimate techniques include dieting, training at altitude and using substances such as caffeine and muscle building creatine.


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