“War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.” – Von Clausewitz, On War
If the IAAF, WADA, and national organizations are now fighting a war on drugs — that is, a war on performance-enhancing drugs — I fear that, like actual wars, it is doomed to be wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. In other words, if we are hoping for bright lines and easily identified good guys and bad guys, we are likely to find our hopes repeatedly frustrated. As much as we’d like summary judgments, it’s going to be complicated and uncomfortable to separate the innocent from the guilty.
I’m always hesitant to write about PEDs, because frankly, I think it’s really easy to write crap about the subject, for several reasons.
First, as an ordinary fan of athletics, I don’t bring any special knowledge to the table. I can’t draw on personal experiences at the Oregon Project (or any other professional training group) to know or sense what’s going on there. I’m not a professional athlete, nor have I ever spent time among them, so I haven’t a clue how they live their day-to-day lives. How can I possibly contribute anything other than shrill insults from the distant cheap seats?
Second, I lack the specific scientific knowledge that might help me sort out claims and counter-claims about various performance aids.
(This lack of knowledge isn’t for lack of interest. A couple of weeks ago, I spent way more time than I’d like to admit reading about Meldonium. After hours of research, I’m still not sure whether there is any scientific evidence that it actually improves performance, and if so, how. The problem is, I’m not a biochemist, and I’m not competent to interpret the studies. All I can say is that it seems to have become very popular among athletes, and that WADA was alarmed enough about this that they banned it as of January 2016. So what used to be questionable but allowed, is now no longer allowed. I’m guessing the bad guys (Aregawi, Sharapova, and others) wouldn’t have been outed if they had just had the sense to stop using the stuff when Meldonium first went on the watch list, instead of continuing until time ran out on them.)
Third, any suggestion that there are gray areas on PED use and enforcement invites the accusation that one isn’t sufficiently moral about the issue. I understand the idea that rules are rules, and that breaking the rules is not OK. But it disturbs me that the set of rules around PEDs — like ANY set of rules around a complex set of behaviors — doesn’t perfectly define moral and immoral behavior. It’s too easy to think of behaviors that fall in a gray area. For instance, if you discovered a hitherto unknown performance-enhancing substance, would it be OK to take it until such time as it was widely noticed and banned? What about ingesting something that you THINK enhances performance, but is only a placebo? Some people (including the chemist who invented it) speculate that the performance-enhancing properties of Meldonium are due to the placebo effect. And what about substances that are proven to be performance-enhancing, but are perfectly legal? Answer after you finish drinking that espresso.
As a fan of track and field, I just hate having to wonder who’s clean and who’s dirty. It absolutely spoils my enjoyment of a great performance to harbor the suspicion that the performance was drug-aided. But who will be able to watch the upcoming World Indoor Championships without wondering?
I wonder how it has come to this. I suspect that the way that money flows through the sport now has ratcheted up the incentives to find every possible edge. A coach like Alberto Salazar basically advertises that he does this, but of course claims that he has scrupulously avoided crossing the line from legal to illegal. I don’t think one has to believe or disbelieve Salazar to recognize that it’s possible to follow the letter of the law and still push the limits of what many people would consider acceptable.
Our ambivalence shows up all over the place, including in popular culture. Does anyone remember the movie Space Jam? After the first half of an apocalyptical basketball game between the Michael Jordan-led ‘Toon squad and the Monstars, Jordan offers his team a water bottle with an elixir that he says will help their game. What!? Of course, it turns out that the secret stuff is ordinary water, but thanks to their belief in its powers, the ‘Toons start the second half playing like all-stars.
I can think of other examples of behavior that seems sketchy, somehow. I knew a high school coach who gave his middle distance runners bicarbonate of soda before races, supposedly to help them resist lactic acid build-up. Until I discouraged the practice, I saw my own high school kids sucking down caffeinated GU before a race — a practice perfectly legal but optically disturbing. And what about kids (or adults) who take Ritalin, Adderall, asthma medication? What about anti-anxiety drugs? What about blood thinners?
Some will say that I’m needlessly complicating things. Legal things are legal, and illegal things are illegal, and that’s all we need to know. But I don’t see it that way. I really struggle to figure out who to root for, and for that I need context — the intent of the athlete, the frequency of use, the back story. Personally, I am most appalled by systematic state-sponsored doping, and am more ambivalent about an individual athlete being busted for taking something for his ADD, but maybe that’s just me.
I actually envy people who see bright lines, and find it easy to take sides. As for me, I’m still seeking that “sensitive and discriminating judgement,” and despairing that I haven’t developed the skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.