Debate Over Performance Enhancing Drugs

A few weeks ago, Bob Costas moderated a debate on the proposition that, “We should accept performance-enhancing drugs in competitive sports.” NPR has the completed, unedited debate in streaming media format on this page, or you can download a PDF transcript of the debate (PDF).

On the Reason magazine blog, debate participant Radley Balko describes a bit of the debate from his point of view, noting that at least when it comes to safety issues, performance enhancing drugs like steroids are far safer than other things that top tier athletes are regularly required to do to their bodies in order to meet the requirements of their particular sport,

[Sportscaster George] Michael also took offense to a comparison I made between the relatively modest risks of steroids and HGH and the other health risks other athletes take to excel. The example I used was horseracing, where the athletes subject themselves to sweat boxes, diuretics, eating disorders, and all sorts of other damaging weight-control techniques. Michael, a horse breeder, was offended that I’d make such accusations—until he realized I was talking about the jockeys, not the horses. Oddly, that didn’t seem to bother him as much.

Dr. Norman Frost put that argument more explicitly in the debate, which NPR features in a pull quote on its page,

I ask you in the audience to quickly name, in your own minds, a single elite athlete who’s had a stroke or a heart attack while playing sports. It’s hard to come up with one. Anabolic steroids do have undesirable side effects: acne, baldness, voice changes … infertility. But sport itself is far more dangerous, and we don’t prohibit it. The number of deaths from playing professional football and college football are 50 to 100 times higher than even the wild exaggerations about steroids. More people have died playing baseball than have died of steroid use.

In general, the argument against allowing performance enhancing drugs in sports tend to lack any coherence. Rather, people who complain about performance enhancing drugs seem to have the same sort of visceral reaction as people of a different era had when anesthesia became widely used to alleviate pain during childbirth — it just violates widely held moral intuitions that amount to one society-wide “ick” at the thought of athletes explicitly modifying their body chemistry with drugs in order to achieve better performance.

It just seems wrong, even if the arguments against it aren’t all that logically consistent.

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