Perspectives: Performance Enhancing Drugs at the Olympics


Being Libertarian Perspectives will serve as a weekly, multi-perspective opinion and analysis piece by members of Being Libertarian’s writing team. Every week the panel, comprised of randomly selected writers, will answer a question based on current events or libertarian philosophy. Managing Editor Dillon Eliassen will moderate and facilitate the discussion.

Dillon Eliassen: The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) is maintaining its ban of Russian athletes at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro due to widespread use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) among Russian athletes. Do you agree or disagree with this decision, and why? Do you believe PED use is so unfair and/or immoral to warrant being banned from competing in sporting events?

Nathaniel Owen: If the IAAF is among the hosts of the Olympic events, then they’re also among the rule-makers and they get to call such shots.

Personally, I can understand their decision. Most people are physically able to train and practice on a level playing field until varying amounts of steroids are introduced, and it ruins the sportsmanship.

Ni Ma: I agree.

Neil McGettigan: I disagree with the decision because it’s not really about the performance enhancing drugs as it is a way to sanction Putin for his support of rogues in the Ukraine. Don’t write me off as one of those libertarian Putin apologists. He is a tyrant, but further isolating Russia globally plays into the hands of Putin. Throughout their history Russia has been ruled by strongmen, but another common feature in the Russian narrative is that it’s Russia against the world. For a while they were the lone Christian Orthodox kingdom preserving the traditions of fallen Byzantium surrounded by heretics of Rome and Muslim controlled Constantinople; in the 20th Century they were the fortress of Bolshevism and the global leaders of the Communist struggle; now, Putin is trying to say that Russia is the preserver of traditional Russian culture against a hostile globe. Forbidding them to be in the Olympics plays into this.

Ni: And if it had been a ban on Luxembourgian athletes for the same reason?

Neil: If Luxembourg (or even China) was banned for steroid use as well then I would find it more believable. Singling out Russia is geopolitically dangerous.

Dillon: I doubt the IAAF did this because they wanted to influence geo-politics.

Carl von Clausewitz said “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” The Olympics are a more abstract form of countries jockeying for power, political/ideological reputations recognized via competitive, supposedly peaceful contests (though some of the sports and events contain inherently violent actions). So, in that context, eliminating an opponent from the battlefield does not provide the opportunity to triumph over him. Not allowing Russia as a country to compete is neutrality; Russia won’t be able to win anything, but any geo-political foes of Russia won’t be able to demonstrate superiority over Russia.

It’s well known that PED use is widespread among Russian athletes (most likely it’s widespread among any country’s athletes that can get their hands on them), and for whatever reason Russia got caught, whereas athletes from other countries were able to pass drug tests.

I don’t have a problem with athletes using PEDs. There are many ways in which athletes can gain competitive advantages, PEDs are just the current bogeyman. Some of them are amazing medical breakthroughs and/or incredibly innovative, like blood doping. I say people should be allowed to do whatever they can or want to gain a competitive advantage. I think it’s progressive (in the good sense of the word, not of the political Left).

Anna, would you take a pill if it helped you better perform surgery on animals?

Anna Trove: Yes, of course I would, if that was the only effect.

Dillon: Aha!

Ni: It’s not the only effect, habit formation is inevitable.

Dillon: Not for every substance.

Do you guys think PEDs are inherently immoral, or is your opinion of them being bad based on their illegality? I want to drill down to the reason why people feel the way they do about them, and if we can also frame it via libertarianism like our opposition to the War on Drugs.

Ni: I don’t think they are immoral. In this context we are just talking about someone violating the rules of a competition, right? If you violate the rules you’re out usually, and it’s up to the owner of the competition to make that call, unless I’m missing something?

Dillon: No, you’re not missing anything. For people in the Olympics, they are trying to achieve lasting fame. There is a lot of money and adoration in pro sports, so the temptation to use PEDs is high. I think it’s understandable that someone would be tempted to use an unnatural additive.

I think PEDs should be allowed, if that wasn’t obvious already.

Ni: Ok, but that’s a business decision rather than a moral one.

Dillon: You’re right.

It’s ironic that PEDs are labeled as “unnatural” but the things these athletes are doing are unnatural, they are trying to get their bodies to perform in ways that they are not designed to perform. I don’t think it’s so terrible someone wants to inflate their stamina or recover from an injury more quickly.

Ni: Some people may set up their competitions allowing those things, others not. Well, our bodies were supposed to perform physical activities to some degree, so I wouldn’t say it’s completely unnatural, but it depends of course on the activity. Pro sports today may at times certainly be unnatural.

Dillon: Life is competition. To prohibit things because they give an “unnatural advantage” seems more arbitrary. I don’t think it’s a black and white moral argument. Has anyone here ever snorted Ritalin or Adderall in college to study for a test? I have several friends who have to help them study or whatever. I don’t like stimulants so I haven’t, but I wouldn’t rat them out or chastise them for doing something that is an “unnatural advantage” because they are doing it for a potential reward, it isn’t just for fun. If that Adderall helps them pass a test which helps them pass the course so they get a diploma and a better job than if they hadn’t blown that line of Adderall, I have no problem with it, and I applaud that decision.

Ni: I don’t applaud them becoming Adderall snorting junkies, but I also wouldn’t prevent them from doing it or rat them out. It’s their choice.

Dillon: Yeah, I don’t think they should become addicts, but if they can use it to help them achieve something, I say go for it.

I think human beings have an obligation to themselves to seek any advantage in life that they can. To try to prevent that by calling something unfair or unnatural is to penalize someone for being better than others. It’s anti-human.

Ni, what do you do? And if you could take a pill or some other thing that would help you excel at it, would you?

Ni: The question is always: at what cost? Your scenario only lays out the benefits

I do play guitar. But do you mean professionally? I’m a software entrepreneur.

But even if that’s the only effect: will I become dependent on that pill to keep up the performance? Will I become lazy or complacent? Will my body be deprived of the challenge it needs to stay agile and fit?

Dillon: That’s something we have to take into account anyway in the context of legalizing street drugs.

Ni: No, I think to initiate violence to keep someone from taking a pill is immoral. That’s why we need legalization. The act of taking the pill is a personal decision, regardless whether it’s bad or good for your body.

Dillon: Do you think PEDs can parallel with affirmative action and wealth redistribution?

Ni: The first refers to the rules of a somewhat voluntary competition, the latter two are government laws, so I’d say no. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the question.

Dillon: I don’t think you misunderstood the question. Authority wanting to be the arbiters of what is fair competition. You just gave your opinion.

Ni: Morally, I don’t think anything is wrong with working towards fair competition, as long as you are the owner of the competition.

Dillon: By trying to define starting points for competition, competition is tamped down on, right? Rules hamper innovation. Whether or not it’s gov’t the IAAF, MLB or any other enterprise and its management, regardless of if it’s voluntary or coercive, if they define how you may compete, they necessarily erode competition. And then you can control outcomes.

Ni: Yes, if you want to call it erode. I mean, soccer requires that you not use your hands to score. Does that “erode” competition? If I tell my employees not to be dicks to our customers, does that “erode” competition? We use rules all the time because we need them to function.

Dillon: Eh, I don’t see that as a parallel. Maybe if you allowed your employees to take a drug that would help them be better software writers…

Ni: Why is it not a parallel? It’s a rule, where’s the difference?

Dillon: Yes, they’re both rules, but the PED issue has several glaring grey areas that one size fits all rules can’t properly address.

Ni: Can you explain?

Dillon: Like with any black market, athletes and their coaches and trainers can avoid detection. Then there are some substances athletes don’t realize are illegal, a certain herbal supplement or hormone, some esoteric thing that is detected and out of bounds, but is just something that is common. Painkillers are in essence PEDs because if you kill the pain you can do something that your pain might otherwise prohibit you from doing. Some PEDs are steroids that help you heal and recover from an injury sooner than you naturally would, they don’t make you a better athlete. And PEDs are supplements, and the help they provide are usually marginal, they aren’t substitutes for natural talent, work ethic and years, if not decades, of training.

Ni: I think that probably depends on the type.

If you were referring to a hypothetical blanket ban on ALL PEDs, then I’d agree that that’s nonsensical or impossible to implement.

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