When is Performance Enhancement Cheating?

Everyone is more or less united that taking steroids, HGH or other performance enhancing drugs is bad. But where should we draw the line? There has been a lot of argument about whether Oscar Pistorious’ blades give him an unfair advantage and whether he should be allowed to compete in the Olympics against able bodied athletes.

This column by Arthur Caplan raises some interesting questions.  Perhaps his most interesting point, in terms of performance enhancement relates to enhanced eyesight.

Tiger Woods is probably one of the greatest golfers of all time. But, his vision was so poor that he was almost legally blind without contact lenses or glasses. In 1999, he had laser surgery on his eyes and his vision improved to better than 20/20. He had another procedure performed last year leaving him not only with improved vision, but better vision than most humans. Does laser-eye surgery that improves vision past 20/20 confer an unfair advantage on Tiger? And what’s the difference between superhuman legs and superhuman sight?

The difference would be even bigger in sports that rely on eyesight more than golf. A baseball player who uses laser eye surgery to achieve 20/10 vision is almost certainly gaining a bigger advantage at the plate than someone like Barry Bonds, who uses drugs to get stronger. Yet we universally think that laser eye surgery is ok while steroids aren’t. Why?

The other point that Caplan makes against performance enhancing additions like laser eye surgery and Pistorious’ blades is the continuity of sport.

Sport demands continuity with its own history. If you make technological changes in the equipment — swimsuits, pole vaults, running shoes, skates, skis, baseballs, bats, playing surfaces, etc — then you undermine the ability of today’s athletes to be compared not only with their peers but with their predecessors.

Similarly, if people with artificial legs, artificial eyes that permit exquisite focus, pharmacologically enhanced muscles or emotions, or brain implants that permit unprecedented concentration or endurance enter into competition, then you no longer have a sport. The athletes are not comparable to those who attempted the same feats in earlier times.

The example of this that I am most familiar with is the new Speedo swim suit that significantly reduces drag and improves times.

Professor Jean-Francois Toussaint, author of a respected study on the limits of human physiology, recently had to update his statistics after a series of 33 records tumbled in world pools, mostly thanks to the best swimmers choosing the new Speedo LZR racer.

“The suit allows gains of about two percent from previously fixed values, therefore it is possible to imagine the 100-metres freestyle could be swum in 46 seconds, or 50 metres in 20.5 seconds,” Toussaint said.

The flip side is that is simply about progress.

“Yes, the swimmers today have advantages that let them go faster than swimmers ten years ago,” said Isaac. “However, that’s the nature of sport, whether it’s tennis rackets or golf clubs or new running shoes or the composition of running tracks. I wouldn’t say it cheapens it, but yes, they have an advantage over those in the past. All the people now have access to the same technology, so the best swimmer is still winning.”

My response is basically that there will always be improvements. If not in technology then in techniques, training and diet. Is it an unfair advantage for athletes to train at high altitude, or to higher a better coach who is better at teaching a new technique.

Swimming records in particular fall for all sorts of reasons. Techniques improve, training methods improve and diets improve. Between 1960 and 1970, with no major technological advancements in swimsuits, the World Record in the 400 meter individual medley fell from 5.07.80 to 4.31.00. that is a gigantic fall. The record now, after advancements in swimsuit technology and all, is 4.06.22.

There is an equity issue here though.

Ah, but therein lies the rub. Every athlete doesn’t have access to this technology. When it comes to the Olympics, some countries have contractual obligations to other manufacturers.

In many sports, say basketball and badminton, this is a moot point — a pair of shoes won’t make any real difference. But increasingly it’s clear that for swimming, a suit has a major impact on performance.

I’m not sure what the best answer is. But it certainly doesn’t seem like the best option is to ban laser eye surgery, new swimsuits and other enhancers.

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One response to “When is Performance Enhancement Cheating?

  1. Information about LASIK procedure, laser eye surgery complications, cost, alternatives, online directory of Laser Eye Surgeons that connects prospective patients with a surgeon in their local area.

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