Is Steroid Use by Athletes Cheating?

Q: Do you believe, as many do, that using steroids in sports is cheating?

A: The simple answer is yes. Most sports have rules against performance enhancing drugs. The relevant definition of cheating is to deliberately violate rules in order to gain an advantage. While there may be some rules or laws that are so unconscionable that it’s justifiable to disobey them, that doesn’t apply here. Juicing is cheating when it breaks the rules, and cheating should be punished.

A more complicated question is whether banning steroids should be the rule. Back in MD’s December 2004 issue, I interviewed Dr. Norm Fost. A graduate of Princeton (A.B.), Yale (M.D.) and Harvard (M.P.H.), he’s not only a practicing pediatrician but also a medical ethics expert. He appeared, as I did, in the provocative 2008 documentary “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” and he’s been a longtime critic of the anti-steroid agenda in sports.

Dr. Fost has said that banning steroids in sports is illogical and arbitrary, and that while steroids may give an athletic advantage, so do lots of other things like better shoes, equipment, training and coaching. He observes that on the same day sprinter Ben Johnson was discovered to be steroid positive at the Seoul Olympics and was stripped of his medal, swimmer Janet Evans was bragging about how her “greasy” swimsuit which was secretly developed by American technology had shaved seconds off her time. The media hailed her victory as a triumph of ingenuity, while Johnson was condemned as immoral. Fost sees the distinction as “incoherent.” He also rejects the argument that steroids are different because of safety concerns, observing that we overlook all sorts of more serious physical dangers in sports. If we’re really so safety-obsessed, we should outlaw boxing and fundamentally change the rules of American football.

Fost is not alone in his views. In 2007, Oxford professor and bioethicist Julian Savulescu coauthored a controversial piece in the British Journal of Sports Medicine entitled, “Why We Should Allow Performance Enhancing Drugs in Sport.” The coauthors examined all the justifications for banning steroids in sports and found them unpersuasive. Enhancing performance isn’t contrary to the “spirit of sport,” they argue, it’s the very essence of sport. Besides, sports are inherently unfair because nature is unfair. Some folks win the genetic lottery and others are dealt losing hands. “If you have one version of the ACE gene, you will be better at long distance events,” they note. “If you have another, you will be better at short distance events. … Ian Thorpe has enormous feet which give him an advantage that no other swimmer can get, no matter how much they exercise. Some gymnasts are more flexible, and some basketball players are seven feet tall.” Allowing steroids, they argue, simply adds another variable into a melting pot of factors; by offsetting genetic unfairness, steroids may actually help “level the playing field.”

If the real goal of anti-doping policy is to optimize sports safety and fairness, Savulescu suggests eliminating drug testing and instituting regular health marker testing instead. Athletes whose health markers show dramatic changes or danger signs of steroid abuse would not be allowed to compete. Presumably, then, drug abuse would be kept in check without the current cat-and-mouse-game of testing for banned substances. This approach, says Savulescu, would protect health and also put an end to situations where athletes are punished when they unknowingly ingest a banned substance, such as when British skier Alain Baxter, “accidentally inhaled a banned stimulant when he used the American version of a [decongestant], without realizing that it differed from the British model.”

Would health testing actually be a better solution than the constantly evolving “arms race” of sophisticated sports doping and anti-doping technologies? Maybe, but don’t hold your breath for it. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is a policy-driving powerhouse, influencing both law-makers and enforcement agencies like the DEA, and they’re deeply invested in the current hide-and-seek game. Banned substance use and testing are both here to stay. Recently, for example, a minor leaguer got a 50 game suspension for testing positive for Andarine, a Selective Androgen Receptor Modulator (SARM), and there’s more news to come.

Rick Collins, JD, CSCS is the lawyer that members of the bodybuilding community and nutritional supplement industry turn to when they need legal help or representation.

[© Rick Collins, 2011. All rights reserved. For informational purposes only, not to be construed as legal or medical advice.]