August 08, 2008

The battle over the spirit of sport

Olympic Stadion August 2006Just in time for the OS opening: Synen på dopning behöver förnyas (Göteborgs-Posten, Waldemar Ingdahl and Julian Savulescu) and Lika bra att nu tillåta dopning i elitidrotten (Dagens Nyheter, Torbjörn Tännsjö and Claudio Tamburrini). Two simultaneous doping harm reduction articles in major Swedish newspapers by philosophers I know and like (full disclosure, Waldemar and me are in the same think tank, and Julian is down the hallway from my office).

Waldemar Ingdahl and Julian Savulescu builds on arguments I wrote about in Captus Tidning (in Swedish) and Julian (among other places) on Ethics in the News. The key issue is that "the spirit of sport" is only relevant for people interested in sports culture: if I, a sedentary academic, want to take an enhancer (like the very promising exercise mimetics recently announced by Narkar et al.) I am now prevented from doing so by rules intended to safeguard the sports business (sport is part of the entertainment business; see The Economist's special report on it). As more and more medical treatments are developed to prevent illness, enhance normal function and improve recovery the strain between doping and non-athletic medicine will become unbearable. The pragmatic approach is to deal with the real problem: reduce harm, whether from doping or excessive training - prevent people with unhealthy hematocrit levels from participating in sport rather than try to find the ones who have taken EPO.

Tännsjö and Tamburrini argue that doping testing is hypocritical and deliberately ineffective - the "war on doping" is going as well as the "war on drugs" and "war on terrorism". They also suggest maximum hematocrits and similar health controls, as well as the interesting (and no doubt practically messy) possibility to even out unfairness in sport by deliberate enhacement. Better to enhance openly, under medical supervision than leave it to the shadows.

The big problem with doping is not within sports, but how it deforms rules and values outside sport. Athletes accept extreme surveillance regimes that are far beyond those required for nuclear power plant workers - and would be stuck down as against their integrity if ever proposed. Yet laws are created that enshrine the right of a certain business to control its contract workers' bodies and souls. Athletes are treated as potential criminals - and they are supposed to be exemplars to us! Taking enhancers is often denounced as "doping", yet the agreed on rules or "spirit" of education, health or living an enjoyable life are utterly different. The doping hunt is casting a shadow over many legitimate activities and diverting resources from where they could be better used.

I think the hope may come from something Andy Miah pointed out: the cyborg athletes. Pistorius and the others are heroes that more and more people admire. Yet they are direct challenges to the "spirit of sport" in a narrow sense by having artificial body parts. The spirit of sport we admire is overcoming any obstracle with style, strength of will, ingenuity and a spirit of play - but this is something technology independent. Artificial legs, PPAR-delta agonists, hi-tech swim suits or front crawl swimming are just ways of expressing it.

Posted by Anders3 at August 8, 2008 11:41 PM