Sago Boulevard

Monday, August 08, 2005

What If Steroids Weren't Dangerous?

In the wake of the steroids controversy in pro sports, Arthur Caplan raises the possibility of a much broader ethical dilemma:
It is easy to condemn steroid use. The drugs, while effective, are dangerous. But what if they were not? How are professional and amateur sports going to deal with the impending explosion in performance-enhancing drugs and bioengineering tricks that can boost performance with little or no risk for the user?
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Scientists around the world are busy making pills that enhance our performance a bit by letting us sleep better, fight fatigue, slow the loss of memory, speed up learning, recover more quickly from hard exertion and calm anxieties. Some of us already are benefiting from drugs like these when we use Ambien, Provigil, Ritalin, Prozac or Effexor.
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We show up at the Olympics with our athletes who have the best training, superb diets, and top-flight equipment and whomp the tar out of athletes from poor nations, some of whom seem to have shown up just to get a decent meal. We are used to employing science to our advantage when it comes to sports, so why should we draw the line at genetic engineering or new miracle pills?
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Is the point of sport to see what human beings can do without aid of any sort in fair competition? If so, we may need to close the training facilities and cut back on what dietitians and trainers are allowed to do.

But if the point of sports is to test the limits of human performance, then we had better get ready to add genetic engineers and a bevy of pharmacologists to the hordes of specialists now working with elite athletes from elementary school to the pros.

The issue goes deeper than just sports. The fact that we still stigmatize people on psychiatric medication stems from the same confusion about what drugs and chemicals really are. When somebody takes antibiotics for strep throat, we consider the medication as restoring the person to a "normal" healthy state. And a sling for a dislocated shoulder isn't frowned upon as cheating nature. Our culture hasn't figured out, though, what to make of the advancements of neurobiology and psychiatry. I think one reason is that we really have no idea what's going on.

I don't have a good answer and I certainly don't know where to draw the line. But the steroids controversy is just one manifestation of a bigger problem. Making arbitrary distinctions about what constitutes "drug use" will only take us so far.