Drugs and bionics: enhancing sport?

Sunday 30 October, 1.45pm until 3.15pm, Café

Hardly a day in the sporting calendar seems to go by without a fresh drugs scandal hitting the headlines, and it is no longer just confined to the usual suspects in cycling and athletics. Whether it’s steroids, recreational drug use, or mistakenly taking your wife’s slimming pills (as claimed by footballer Kolo Toure), there are plenty of pitfalls for professional sports stars as tests become more and more stringent. The International Cycling Union even admitted to compiling a secret ‘doping risk’ profile of last year’s Tour de France competitors.

Yet while there are only a few voices arguing for a relaxation of attitudes towards straightforward doping, the debate is more strained when it comes to other means of enhancing performance. For some, the expectation that professional athletes must dedicate themselves to the pursuit of excellence is undermined when increasingly arbitrary classifications are made as to what constitutes cheating. It seems counterintuitive, for instance, to ban one competitor for taking an over-the-counter supplement with negligible benefits and allow another to use the latest top-of-the-range, expensively-developed swimsuit or high-tech racing bike. With the development of physical conditioning and even the possibility of bionic enhancement – as heralded by the disqualification of prosthetic-limbed runner Oscar Pistorious from the 2008 Olympics – the lines look set to become increasingly blurred.

Where do we draw the line between ‘fair’ enhancement and cheating? If sport is about achieving excellence by pushing the limits of the human body as far as it can go, is it really undermined by the use of drugs and other enhancements? Should we be seeking to uphold at least some of the amateur ethos of sportsmanship and fair play in a professional era? Or is artificial enhancement a natural progression from intensive training, carefully-designed diets and the other gains of sports science?

John Cooper
leading criminal and human rights barrister; regular columnist, The Times and Observer; editor, Criminal Bar Quarterly

Dr David James
senior lecturer, sports engineering, Sheffield Hallam University

Geoff Kidder
director, membership and events, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Book Club; IoI’s resident expert in all sporting matters

Dr Emily Ryall
senior lecturer in philosophy, University of Gloucestershire; chair, British Philosophy of Sport Association

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
Recommended readings
London 2012: Cleaners set to spy on dopers

Cleaning and security staff will be tasked with informing on doping cheats during next summer's Olympics games.

Matt McGrath, BBC News, 4 October 2011

In defence of the rights of sportsmen

The anti-doping crusade has led to an appalling denigration of athletes’ rights. Why is there no uproar about it?

Klaus Wivel, spiked, 14 September 2011

Why Oscar Pistorius deserves to run

If prosthetics do give Pistorius an edge in the 400 meters, nobody's found a way to prove it.

Ford Vox, CNN, 28 August 2011

The Case For Performance-Enhancing Drugs In Sports

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Matthew Herper, Forbes, 21 May 2011

We're winning the fight against doping in sports

The use of performance-enhancing substances or methods is prohibited because it is unfair, potentially dangerous to health, and violates the spirit of sport. The issue matters to society because whatever our values are, we should live by them in every facet of our lives.

Caroline K. Hatton, Christian Science Monitor, 24 November 2010

An Amputee Sprinter: Is He Disabled or Too-Abled?

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J Savulescu, B Foddy and M Clayton, British Journal of Sports Medicine 38:666-670, 2004

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