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Debate: Legalization of performance-enhancing drugs in pro sports

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Revision as of 20:00, 2 April 2008

Should the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports be legalised?


This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Alastair Endersby. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

At least as far back as Ben Johnson's steroid scandal at the 1988 Olympics [1], the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports had entered the public psyche. Johnson's world record sprint, his win, and then, the stripping of his gold medal made news around the world. However, performance-enhancing drugs in sports do not begin with Johnson. A quick overview of drugs in sports[2] reveals the earlier use of questionable substances[3]; some even argue that drugs in sports date back to the earliest Olympic games [4].

The 2000 Olympics once again focused the attention of the world upon the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs within sport. Several Olympic champions were stripped of their medals as a result of positive drugs tests, while the withdrawal of a large number of Chinese competitors on the eve of the games was widely assumed to be linked to failed drugs tests. Although attention is often focused upon athletics, almost all sports have a “drug problem” and devote considerable energy to testing competitors regularly, banning those who fail them. Nonetheless, doubts remain as to the effectiveness of these tests and the fairness of some of the resulting bans, and some argue the whole approach is deeply flawed. Performance-enhancing drugs include steroids, the male hormone testosterone, Human-growth hormone and other drugs taken to build muscle-bulk during training, and stimulants or blood-doping taken to improve performance in competition. Most such drugs have some medical uses and are prescribed legally in certain non-athletic contexts; it is unlikely that a Proposition would also wish to legalise “recreational” drugs such as cocaine, heroin and amphetamines, although all of these could be regarded as performance-enhancing in certain sporting contexts.

Should athletes and/or sports governing bodies allow the choice of using performance-enhancing drugs?


Freedom of choice. If athletes wish to take drugs in search of improved performances, let them do so. They harm nobody but themselves and should be treated as adults, capable of making rational decisions upon the basis of widely-available information. Even if there are adverse health effects in the long-term, this is also true of both tobacco and boxing, which remain legal.


Once some people choose to use drugs to enhance their performance, other athletes have their freedom of choice infringed upon: if they want to succeed they have to take drugs too. Athletes are very driven individuals, who would go to great lengths to achieve their goals. The chance of a gold medal in two years time may out-weigh the risks of serious health problems for the rest of their life. We should protect athletes from themselves and not allow anyone to take performance-enhancing drugs.

Should a boundary be drawn between legitimate and illegitimate substance?


Natural/unnatural distinction untenable. Already athletes use all sorts of dietary supplements, exercises, equipment, clothing, training regimes, medical treatments, etc. to enhance their performance. There is nothing ‘natural’ about taking vitamin pills, wearing whole-body Lycra suits, having surgery on ligaments, spending every day in a gym pumping weights, running in shoes with spikes on the bottom, etc. Diet, medicine, technology, and even just coaching already give an artificial advantage to those athletes who can afford the best of all these aids. Since there is no clear way to distinguish from legitimate and illegitimate artificial aids to performance, they should all be allowed.


It is true that it is difficult to decide where to draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate performance enhancement. However we should continue to draw a line nonetheless. First, to protect athletes from harmful drugs. Secondly, to preserve the spirit of fair play and unaided competition between human beings in their peak of natural fitness. Eating a balanced diet and wearing the best shoes are clearly in a different category from taking steroids and growth hormones. We should continue to make this distinction and aim for genuine drug-free athletic competitions.

Is allowing drugs good for sports and athletes?


Levels the playing field. Currently suspicion over drug use surrounds every sport and every successful athlete, and those competitors who don’t take performance-enhancing drugs see themselves as disadvantaged. Some drugs can’t be tested for, and in any case, new medical and chemical advances mean that the cheats will always be ahead of the testers. Legalisation would remove this uncertainty and allow everyone to compete openly and fairly.


Very bad for athletes. The use of performance-enhancing drugs leads to serious health problems, including “steroid rage”, the development of male characteristics in female athletes, heart attacks, and greatly reduced life expectancy. Some drugs are also addictive. With these results in mind, one must seek to eliminate and discourage the use of drugs by most athletes. We cannot condone wrongdoings for balance.

Do contemporary sports need performance-enhancing substances?


Better spectacle for spectators. Sport has become a branch of the entertainment business and the public demands “higher, faster, stronger” from athletes. If drug-use allows world records to be continually broken, and makes American Football players bigger and more exciting to watch, why deny the public what they want, especially if the athletes want to give it to them?


Spectators enjoy the competition between athletes rather than individual performances; a close race is better than a no-contest in a world record time. Similarly, they enjoy displays of skill, e.g. in football and other team sports and in gymnastics, more than simply raw power. In any case, why should we sacrifice the health of athletes for the sake of public enjoyment? Furthermore, the question arises, that if the government allows the partaking of drugs to enhance performances of athletes, why not allow other professional (physically laboring) individuals such as construction workers, to also use the steriods to enhance performance? The fact of the matter remains, that societal entertainment does not override the importance of health for individuals.

Simple analogy: If a person were to kill himself for the sake of entertaining the crowd--this act would still be considered illegal by the government and efforts to hinder/discourage will be put forth. A steriod induced athlete is on his way to serious death and/or danger of injuring other individuals around him (based on increases in testostrone levels that aggragate resulting in high levels of blood pressure and high probability of rash behavior). This should be seen as an equally detrimental act and thus illegal.

Argument #5


Current rules are very arbitrary and unfair:e.g. cold remedies denied to athletes, even in sports where any stimulating effect these might have is minimal (e.g. Gymnastics in the Sydney Olympics)e.g. the possibility that some positive tests are simply the result of using a combination of legal food supplements (e.g. nandrolone) e.g. creatine is legal despite health riskse.g. cyclists legally having heart operations to allow increased circulation and thus improve performance.


What about the children? Even if performance-enhancing drugs were only legalised for adults, the definition of this varies from country to country. Teenage athletes train alongside adult ones and share the same coaches, so many would succumb to the temptation and pressure to use drugs if these were widely available and effectively endorsed by legalisation. Not only are such young athletes unable to make a fully rational, informed choice about drug-taking, the health impacts upon growing bodies would be even worse than for adult users. It would also send a positive message about drug culture in general, making the use of “recreational drugs” with all their accompanying evils more widespread.

Argument #6


Bans increasingly fail to stand up in court. The whole legal basis for drugs-testing and the subsequent banning of transgressors is open to challenge, both as restraint of trade and invasion of privacy, and on scientific and methodological grounds. Sports’ governing bodies fighting, and often losing, such court cases wastes vast sums of money.


Disadvantages poor nations. Far from creating a level playing field, legalisation would tilt it in favour of those athletes from wealthy countries with advanced medical provision and pharmaceutical industries. Athletes from poorer nations would no longer be able to compete on talent alone. Talent, skill, hardwork--at the root of all sprots, these are the points on which one must solely base the winner. Not on his financial ability to afford medicines that enhance his natural performance. The act of encouraging drugs in the sporting business contradicts the values of sportsmanship.

Argument #7


If legal then drugs can be controlled and monitored by doctors, making them much safer. Athletes on drugs today often take far more than is needed for performance-enhancement, running needless health risks as a result, simply because of ignorance and the need for secrecy. Legalisation allows more information to become available and open medical supervision will avoid many of the health problems currently associated with performance-enhancing drugs.


Reform is preferable to surrender. The current testing regime is not perfect but better research, testing and funding, plus sanctions against uncooperative countries and sports could greatly improve the fight against drugs in sport.



  • This House would legalise the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport
  • This House would win at all costs
  • This House believes your chemist is your best friend

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