Saturday, January 05, 2008

Why do you think they call it dope?

Dopers suck. Yeah, we've heard that before, and its a little tough to find someone to say with a straight face that we should legalize and authorize doping in sport. Sure, there are some that suggest merely abandoning the anti-doping movement - surrendering in the war on drugs in sport - would simply let the forces of caveat emptor make this segment of the entertainment industry show its true colors.

I've often wondered exactly what a doper is. It is probably fair to say that an athlete that competes and uses banned substances or methods is certainly a cheater. We know what these substances and methods are for sure. There's a list. If an athlete confesses and admits to breaking those rules, sure - they're a doper, a cheater. Two words: Marion Jones.

Can a principled distinction be made between using those listed substances or methods, and other purportedly legal and allowed substances and methods? Other than "those are the rules?" As the Mitchell Report points out, use of the banned substances puts the athletes, young followers of sport, and the integrity of the games at risk. These conclusions can't be reasonably disputed.

As I type this, I have an NFL football game on the TV. They just ran an ad for a sports supplement. Is there really a difference between the purported benefits of using that legal supplement and a banned one, other than the mere acceptance that "if it isn't breaking the rules, it isn't wrong?" Sure, there is certainly a difference in the medical mechanism the substances promote. But open any sports magazine or web page, and you will find many, many ads and articles extolling the benefits of various supplements, additives and pills. Why isn't aren't these magic bullets banned? Doesn't the promise of these fast, instant benefits from a pill have the same risks the Mitchell report lists? Isn't taking ibuprofen to dull pain during sport cheating? Isn't pain management part of sport? And I really have to wonder why it is OK for athletes, *during competition*, to strap on an oxygen mask! (I've seen this many times in NFL games.) While supplements may be made by reputable companies, many are untested. The FDA does not regulate dietary supplements. Isn't unsupervised use of unregulated substances by youth dangerous? Doesn't sport suffer when there isn't a level playing field, and performance comes from a pill or a chemistry lab?

Nowhere is this issue clearer than the use of oxygen tents. At one point, there was discussion of the use of such apparatus being banned by WADA. The problem, of course, was that how can you tell if someone is "cheating" by using these devices, or if they simply train at altitude? Should it be a banned method to live in Columbia? One of those things on the "you're a cheater list" is that you have a hematocrit level above 50. The strict presumption is that this indicted the athlete is a cheater - has been using banned substances or practices (like homologous blood tranfusions.) But this seemingly brands a person a cheater based on where they train; and many people train where they live. Wanna compete fairly? Guess they have to move. So let me get this straight: you live in Colordao, and spend a lot of effort training above 10,000 feet. This makes your blood values jump, and you fail a test, so you're a cheater. But if you spend some money at GNC (or on ebay?), get lots of pills and work out at sea level, you get gold medals.

Integrity of sport depends on the dedication and hard work of the athletes. One of the best things I ever heard from a coach was in response to a question from a young athlete. The coach was asked "what do I have to do to succeed? To win? I'll do anything." The coach responded. "It isn't what you are willing to do, it is what you are willing to give up. Are you willing to give up fun time with your friends after school? Give up weekends watching TV? Give up other extra-curricular activities at school?" But I begin to wonder "are you willing to give up where you live? Give up your job? Give up getting an education?" Never mind the seemingly ubiquitous availability of pills, creams and sports drinks that can improve your performance - what about competing fairly against someone who is independently wealthy? Doesn't this put the athletes and young fans at risk?

As it turns out, the early Olympic movement recognized this. Professional athletes were spurned. No one wanted the glory of sport to be dominated by "play for pay" athletes. But in a world dominated by many billions of dollars in entertainment opportunities, who can resist? I can't help but wonder how many sports records are held by mediocre athletes that simply had the opportunity to buy their way to the right conditions to excel. Is that different than buying dope?

Think about it next time you see someone ask if it's in you. Is the money in you?

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