Legalize It: An Argument For 'Doping' In Sports : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Commentator Alva Noë argues that there is no reason to ban performance-enhancing drugs in sports. Prohibition stems from a bizarre confusion about what sports are all about.

Legalize It: An Argument For 'Doping' In Sports

A victim of the confused thinking around performance-enhancing drugs? High jumper Dimitrios Chondrokoukis of Greece skipped the 2012 Olympics in London after failing an anti-doping test in the run-up to the games. Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

A victim of the confused thinking around performance-enhancing drugs? High jumper Dimitrios Chondrokoukis of Greece skipped the 2012 Olympics in London after failing an anti-doping test in the run-up to the games.

Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Rocky's coach forbade him to have sex with his girlfriend while he was in training. Was this because he would be so tired out by sex? Or was it that the coach believed it would alter Rocky's drive, or mindset, somehow making him happy and relaxed, depriving him of the disturbed drive, the hunger, to win? I was just a kid when I saw the movie. I didn't really understand.

I don't remember our freshman-year track coach telling us anything about honor, spiritual cultivation or the joys of competition. I do remember him explaining the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise, ways to control painful lactic acid build up and, of course, advice about what and when to eat before a meet.

Both these examples remind us that sports has never been concerned alone with what goes on in the ring, or on the field, but always also with the cultivation of oneself.

All sports are like Formula One. The goal is to win, but the project is to make the optimal vehicle, and then to learn how to use it and tune it and transform it (yourself!) into something capable of going just beyond the limits of what is possible. And so athletes — or rather their coaches and teams and cultures — study and experiment.

Biochemistry, nutrition, training regimens, all with an eye to self-transformation. Look at carbo-loading, for example. Swedish scientists back in the 1960s devised an elaborate system for maximizing glycogen levels in the muscles of marathon runners. The idea, roughly, was to run a long race about a week before the marathon, depleting the muscles of their glycogen stores. This was followed by a rest period with a very low carbohydrate diet. By now the muscles are starving for glycogen and are ready to take even larger amounts on board and store it up. Now the runner is ready to binge, eating as much high-carb foods as he or she can in the run-up to the race. This is an ingenious way to combine eating, resting, and running to jigger the body's default biochemistry and so to achieve a biochemical state of readiness for the start of the big race.

(For a great discussion of carbo-loading and the science behind and history of doping, see Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The Science Behind Drugs in Sport by Chris Cooper.)

From this standpoint, it is natural, appropriate and entirely in accord with the spirit of the project of athletic achievement to explore and then exploit the benefits afforded by new knowledge and new technologies. So-called blood doping — maximizing one's ability effectively to transport oxygen to the muscle fibers by blood transfusions (one's own, or someone else's) — is a brilliant and creative solution, an entirely natural next step once you've tapped out other techniques (such as sleeping at high altitudes, or in oxygen tents).

Why ban blood doping?

Because it isn't natural!

Nonsense! What is more natural than blood?

Transfusion isn't natural though. It's medical. Scientific. It's icky. Syringes, hoses, blood. Yuck!

Is it natural to sleep in a tent with low oxygen levels? Or to take a cable car up to sleep and then back down to train?

What does natural mean today? What has it ever meant? Transfusion is used widely in our society as a therapy for a wide range of illnesses and complaints. It isn't strange, unheard of, foreign. It's a clever means to an end.

The thing is, you will say, the transfusions allows you achieve higher levels of red blood cells than you could through other training means, or that it allows you to reach higher levels in a shorter period of time.

And that's right. That's the point!

Athletes are clever and they don't give up. They find new ways, new solutions. That is the sport.

I honestly can't see any principled difference between blood doping, and carbo-loading or high-low altitude training. There is no principled difference.

And this is why athletes dope. Not because they are vain, or weak-willed, or set on taking what is rightfully someone else's. The project is to figure out a way to transform themselves so that they can do it better than anyone else. This is what they do.

Doping isn't cheating.

Of course, in a strictly legalistic sense, it may very well be cheating. If the rules say "no blood doping" then you break the rules if you transfuse.

But there are two points to be made about this.

First, you can't ban every new molecule, synthetic or otherwise, whose ingenious consumption can be shown, in combination with hard work, to improve performance. You can't ban ingenuity. And so you should not blame athletes for coming up with new cocktails that evade the letter of the law. This is what they do. This is how they think.

Second, why should blood doping, or EPO, or anabolic steroids, be banned in the first place? I don't believe there is a satisfactory justification for prohibition.

And this has two consequences.

The first is straight forward. Sporting authorities will never win the arms race. They'll always be one step behind the athletes. What they will do is destroy the careers of some athletes. They will humiliate them and dishonor them. But for every athlete they injure through disqualification there are others who will escape detection. (Bravo!)

The second consequence is more subtle. The anti-doping authorities will never convince the athletes that they shouldn't try to dope, just as they'll never convince them that it's wrong to think about food, sex and sleep in connection with training.

We treat athletes like tax cheats. But really they are just working the loop holes. As they must. This is what they do.

There are a good reasons not to take drugs to enhance athletic performance. It can be very dangerous, for one. But here's a news flash. Sports are not good for you. Athletes transform themselves into performance vehicles. Just look at the bodies of the athletes at this Olympics! Natural? No way. Examples of sound mind in a sound body? No way!

One last point: our prohibitionist attitudes are new — intimately connected to our society's fifty-year old demonization of drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and such like — and the athletes permissive interest in recipes, cocktails and regimens for maximizing success is as old as the hills. In the future, I believe, and I hope, we'll look back on this anti-PED hysteria as a strange aberration, a sign of our moral immaturity.

Back to sex: banning drugs in sports is a bit like banning foreplay.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter @alvanoe