Doping and Violate the Spirit of Sport

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The idea that sport is never fair and therefore the use of performance enhancing drugs is not cheating as it cannot ‘violate the spirit of sport by creating an unlevel playing field between athletes’ if the playing field was never level to begin with. It is said that winners are not born but are instead made through hard work in training. However, the investigative reporter, David Epstein, shows in his book ‘The Sports Gene’ that this is not necessarily true. 

He argues that those who win the genetic lottery have such a large advantage over others, that the people with less desirable genes could never become elite athletes. Surely this is an unfair advantage? – those individuals with better genes have not worked for them and sport is made into an unlevel playing field from birth. Epstein make his case through many examples. In sprinting those who have the ability to draw more oxygen from the air than the average are more likely to win. Whilst in high jump jumpers with excessively long Achilles tendons end up succeeding. Whilst marathon runners from a single tribe in western Kenya are the best. He concludes that to sculpt an elite athlete, nature must be in their favour.

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It is hard to work out the specific genes that cause enhanced performance, but recent studies have identified a handful genes that could be factors in athlete success. For instance, those with the EPOR gene tend to have higher hemoglobin levels in the blood. This improves the oxygen consumption efficiency and consequently benefits an athlete.

Over the past fifty years are clear trend in athletic success across the different disciplines can be seen. Athletes of African ancestry hold every major male running record, from the 100 meters to the marathon. Over the last seven Olympic men’s 100-meter races, all 56 finalists have been of West African descent and only two non-African runners, have reached the top 500 100-meter times. This clearly suggests that the genetically linked, highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, the distribution of muscle fibre types, reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency and lung capacity aren’t evenly distributed among people and are causing unfair advantages in terms of athletic capabilities between different countries.

A specific example of genetic differences being brandished as unfair comes from the double female 800 meters Olympic Champion, Caster Semenya. The 28-year-old South African runner has been competing on the world stage for almost ten years. Recently, however, she has found herself engaged in a legal dispute with the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) over the controversial regulations targeting women with ‘Difference of Sexual Development’ (DSD). 

Caster Semenya was naturally born with extremely high levels of testosterone and this is thought by some to be an unfair advantage as testosterone boosts performance. The IAAF wants to place regulations that will prevent women with high levels of testosterone from participating in certain events unless they take hormone-suppressing medication (to get testosterone down to a more normal level). Surely the fact that the IAAF wants to alter a person’s natural hormonal levels in order to make the playing field more level shows that no level playing field naturally exists in athletics, therefore doping is not so unfair and unsportsmanlike.

Another way in which some athletes have advantages over others is through access to different legal performance enhancing technologies like the hypoxic air machine which provides nitrogen rich air to an athlete whilst they train in order to increase their blood’s oxygen carrying capacity and boost red blood cell production. The machine does a very similar thing to the banned drug erythropoietin (EPO). Altitude training, another legal method to get the body to release natural EPO and grow more blood cells, is stimulated through this technology. There is no difference between elevating your blood count by altitude training, by using a hypoxic air machine, or by taking EPO, yet only the last method is illegal. Surely this is evidence to show that the ban on PEDs is unnecessary as competitors can gain unfair advantages through other means anyway.

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