Why Legalizing Sports Doping Won’t Work

Yesterday, I posted a short piece called “Should We Just Let the Tour de France Dopers Dope Away?” It wasn’t an outright call for legalization of sports doping, but I wanted to put the idea on the table.

Well, Joe Lindsey, a contributing writer for Bicycling magazine, wrote in to say that there are a lot of compelling reasons to keep the idea off the table. Joe, who has written widely on doping in cycling, was good enough to write up his argument in the guest post below.

Guest Blog

Why Legalizing Sports Doping Won’t Work
by Joe Lindsey

The irony of the recent report that the Olympics are considering kicking out cycling because of its doping probems is that it was then-International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch who floated the idea in 1997 of a “gladiator class” of sports – where doping was acknowledged and allowed.

It’s worth considering, as the Tour de France practically grinds to a halt as one after another top competitor is removed from the race under suspicion of doping, whether we might just throw the doors of the pharmacy wide open and say have at it. “Pure cycling is just an illusion,” said Francesco Moser once. Moser is a former top cyclist who now heads the professional riders’ union. “There comes a stage when a rider must be told the effects of a medicine. Then if he wants to, let him take it.”

Or is that such a good idea? If we play Prometheus to cycling’s mortals, what happens?

First, let’s set aside two logistical problems.

One, not all cyclists dope, nor do they want to. Jonathan Vaughters, a former pro who now runs a domestic cycling team called Slipstream Sports, which performs its own anti-doping testing, has characterized the doping dynamic as the dragged and the draggers. (This is an unpublished quote from a personal interview with Vaughters for a Men’s Journal article on Floyd Landis.) The vast majority of cyclists who would prefer to race clean (the dragged) are instead tempted to dope simply to keep up with the small minority who aggressively dope for a competitive advantage (the draggers). Modern oxygen-vector doping is so effective, a rider has two choices: dope and keep up, or stay clean and fall behind. “I guess, after years and years and years of standing on the start line and feeling like I was a mile behind, it finally got to me,” said nine-time Tour finisher Frankie Andreu of the experience. Andreu succumbed, temporarily. (This is from a Dec. 2006 Men’s Journal article, not available online.) But it is possible to race and even win clean, if you’re smart and work hard. So some racers never dope, even if their careers suffer for it. But if most riders want to race clean, then legalizing doping puts them in an impossible position: dope, or quit the sport.

Second, not all doping techniques are created equal. The most effective regimens are also the most sophisticated and expensive – according to a der Spiegel interview, German pro Jorg Jaksche paid 37,000 Euros one year for a “medical program” that was slightly less than comprehensive. Star riders such as Tyler Hamilton and Jan Ullrich are alleged to have paid 50,000 Euro or more, a substantial chunk of the average pro racer’s contract but a mere tithe to riders of Hamilton and Ullrich’s salary range. So if doping is legalized, the sport’s richest riders and teams will have access to techniques that lesser lights don’t. The playing field, never level, would be tilted permanently.

If you can somehow manage to get past those two little hurdles, there is a third, much more formidable one: what to legalize, and how to enforce it?

One of the serious allegations against Michael Rasmussen, who was yanked from the Tour while leading the race, is that in 2002, he attempted to use a synthetic blood substitute called Hemopure.

We can’t legalize Hemopure for sporting use. It’s only approved for human medical use in one country: South Africa. If you transport it to or use it in France, Italy, the United States or virtually any other country outside of a government-approved clinical trial, you’re breaking federal law on the transport and possession of controlled substances. Trenbolone, which Game of Shadows authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams say Barry Bonds used, is a veterinary-only product, intended for use in cattle. Don’t even mention designer steroids like BALCO’s infamous The Clear.

Medical laws and medical ethics prevent us from letting athletes use these substances outside of a clinical trial. But athletes, who eagerly seek out anything that will give them a competitive edge, will still try and get them. H. Lee Sweeney, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was shocked when, after publishing research in an obscure scholarly journal on an experimental gene therapy technique to inhibit myostatin (as a therapy for muscular dystrophy), he began receiving inquiries from athletes, and even a high-school wrestling coach, on how to use the technique to boost performance.

Simply put, wherever you draw the line, something, some technique or substance, will always be off-limits. And so you’ve merely moved the line, not erased it.

Finally, none of that addresses the moral problems involved in legalizing doping. Doping in sports isn’t inherently wrong; it’s wrong by the value system with which we judge sports. Sports themselves are by their nature civilized: everyone agrees to follow a certain set of rules. If you don’t, that’s cheating. Legalizing doping doesn’t change those rules as much as remove them altogether, and then it’s no longer a sport, but merely entertainment. Right or wrong, we look to sports and to athletes for an inspiration that mere entertainment cannot provide – there is an implicit contract that the sweat and effort we see before us is real and natural. Do you want to see who’s the best athlete, or just who had the best access to pharmaceutical enhancement?


i hate the argument that sports are some hallowed, sacred form of entertainment. we want to watch athletes succeed as much as we want to see an actor deliver an amazing performance that moves us in much the same way. do we care if hollywood celebrities are completely drugged out and spend half their time in plastic surgery clinics? no. in fact, we eat it up. i watch sports to see what humans can achieve. if someone has to dope to run a mile in 3:30 thats fine by me, i just want to see it because that would be incredible. and if everyone thought the runner was clean but it came out later he was dirty would i really care? no. and its not like if doping were legal people would go crazy; it would be self correcting. is taking creatine and doing 100 situps somehow more 'pure' than doing 200 situps? please.


As lermitt would say,

Good of you to put that up. I'll sum it up for you. Dope is like money, but it is not money. Thanks for sharing.


yeah, the draggers are the alpha males- and we need systemic regulation of the alphas- else, life in sports may become nasty, brutish, and short


Legalizing doping doesn't change those rules as much as remove them altogether

While I don't care about sports, dopes, or sports doping, I find this a silly argument. The rest of the piece is reasoned and pretty well thought out.

But this begs the question, much like typical circular arguments against street drugs. 'Drugs are bad because they're illegal. And they're illegal because they're bad.' No getting around that, then.

So, if you change the rules to permit doping, then what? Is it still 'immoral'? If you believe that, then this line of argument is specious. And also if you don't believe it.


Wow, those reasons against doping are so bad, I'm starting to think that doping must be permissible!

Some responses to all four reasons given:

Against reason #1--not all cyclists want to engage in a grueling exercise regimen, but they are all dragged into it by the draggers that do.

Against #2--not all exercise regimens are created equal.

Against #3--legalize everything, and enforcement becomes unnecessary.

Against #4--doping is *not* wrong by "the value system with which we judge sports". It's wrong only because the rules say it is. If we change the rules, it's no longer wrong. There is no implicit contract of naturalness, especially if we explicitly say so.


it would seem that in the end, the best athletes do dope because the stakes are high. The entire circumstantial case with Barry Bonds is based on the premise he was envious at all the attention Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire got for hitting homeruns in 1998 because Bonds felt HE was the better athlete.

It's perhaps a tad speculative, but it looks like he leveled the playing field.

Richard Crowley

Hear hear! Dubner is good to bring up the alternative of legalizing doping in a controlled manner, but that would be akin to opening the floodgates. What our sport needs is integrity. We will get there with a clearing of the old guard (which has largely taken care of itself) and a healthy dose of suspicion. I want the awe inspired by watching these guys race to once again make me wish I could do that without hesitating to wonder if they are on drugs.


Compelling response. However, I vehemently disagree with one statement toward the end: Sports themselves are by their nature civilized: everyone agrees to follow a certain set of rules. If you don't, that's cheating.

Sports have NEVER been civilized. In fact, “sport” began in the MOST uncivilized approach possible – the hunting and killing of animals.  We happily shoot in duck blinds, create “lures” for fishing and feed lakes with fish, take hunting guides on safari's. The Christians merely received a thumbs up or down. We laud crashes in car races, enforcer fighting in hockey, we spur bulls in bull riding, SI dedicates their front page and main article this week to “hard hits.”

Bull crap. Sports are NOT by their nature civilized. Sports are our secret venue to our most savage of instincts.

The biggest lie of all is not doping. It is our unclad desire to implicitly believe the pretense that ANYTHING about sport ever was, is or will be civilized.



The biggest lie of all....is our unclad desire to implicitly believe the pretense that ANYTHING about sport ever was, is or will be civilized

Wow! Wonder what Curt Gowdy of Wide World of Sports would say about that?


Let's not forget that SOME doping is dangerous.

Attempts to increase red blood cells were probably behind a number of suspicious deaths in cyclists over the past decade, for example. I believe bodybuilding has been subject to the same problems, but I'm less able to speak to them.


In general, there's little testing available of drug effects on highly select populations taking unusual dosage levels in combination with heavy training loads and whatever other chemicals they are using. [Nor, really, should there be.]

Let's also not forget that inexpensive and harmless chemical enhancement IS allowed -- Gatorade being one common example, aspirin and other NSAID's being another.

It's possible that we would be better off without big-money sports, and if we can't save them we shouldn't mourn it. Professional cycling has little relationship to recreational cycling, just as the NBA doesn't have much relevance to pickup basketball at your local park and MLB is a long way from that softball game at your company picnic. Maybe if we participated more in activities rather than watched them and gambled on them we'd all be better off.



"Second, not all doping techniques are created equal. The most effective regimens are also the most sophisticated and expensive –"

How much of this expense is the actual cost of the regimen, and how much of it is coming up with a system to avoid detection? And even if the best doping techniques are the most expensive, how is this different than saying we should stop athletes from exercising, since the best exercise regimens are also the most expensive?


I think we should legalize motors too. Maybe even rockets. The point is to go faster, right?


Lame argument. You don't move the line you remove the line - anything goes. It's still a sport and still entertainment and if the athletes violate law that's a matter to deal with elsewhere. The alternative is to pretend the line actually has some sort of impact other than pushing everything underground.


egretman wrote: "Wow! Wonder what Curt Gowdy of Wide World of Sports would say about that?"

1. Curt Gowdy is dead, so he can't say anything.
2. Why not just give those that use drugs a handicap, just like the recently completed Chicago-Mackinac sailing race does. It always takes them a day aor so to figure out the actual winner of that race.

All I can say is that I don't care what these fools take as long as they are told of the consequences.
Like the fact that steroids will cause shrinkage of the penis and testicles!


My biggest problem with the idea of doping in sports is the fact that are ways of enhancing performance that have adverse health effects. (Just ask Lyle Alzado - oh wait, you can't because he died - at 43 years old.) Over time, we will discover more and more performance enhancers that shorten people's lifespan. Looking at the future, if we allow doping, I think it's obvious that the "best athletes" will be those that trade their lives for a gold medal, to be in the history books. It's ultimately a race to the bottom as athletes kill themselves to be the best. You take a performance enhancing drug that shaves 10 years off your life, and you get beaten by someone else who is willing to shave 20 years off their life to win. Whoever is most willing to destroy their bodies will be the "winners". Ultimately, doping will eliminate any interest in the sport as the general public recoils in horror at the athletes and their self-destructive practices, or maintains a grim fascination in the winners who are destroying themselves for fame and fortune.



And we are back to the old questions of drugs in society - should people be free to make their own mistakes, or restricted because of the drug and/or the links to other drugs?

Personally, I feel that if you legalise drugs you get competition from BALCO, etc to produce the best - imagine "BALCO have signed an exclusive million dollar contract to provide drugs to T Mobile cycling team" or "Vinokourov wins and celebrates his wife, children, team mates and chemist", it is against the ethos of sport.

In addition, there is once more the old cannibas argument, when you legalise one drug, it acts as a gateway to other drugs, when you remove morals from sport, you remove it from the athlete's lives, and they will be tempted by recreational drugs.

ps - egretman, strictures - pretty sure that Curt Gowdy didn't present Wide World of Sports, either - Jim McKay or Howard Cosell perhaps?

Chris S.

I think I can now sum up the entire subject:

Doping is bad because it's called doping.

If it wasn't bad, we'd call it vitamins.

This is the sort of thoughtless reasoning that makes alcohol available OTC (addictive and lethal), narcotics prescribed by the bucketload (addictive and lethal), and billions of dollars spent each year to try to prevent the use of cannibis (nonaddictive and nonlethal).

So where do we draw a line of distinction between Gatorade and EPO? And why there?


Chris S.


Well, kenneth, that was Curt Gowdy's voice voicing "Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports -- the human drama of athletic competition -- the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat"

So for me it was always Gowdy. But we are telling our ages, big buddy.

This is the sort of thoughtless reasoning that makes alcohol available OTC (addictive and lethal), narcotics prescribed by the bucketload (addictive and lethal), and billions of dollars spent each year to try to prevent the use of cannibis (nonaddictive and nonlethal).

Nice mini-rant. Mine if I steal that? But let bicycling keep testing. They are doing a good job.

Draft King

Maybe they can have two leagues: one with doping and one without, like the public/private split of high school sports in Tennessee.

As Tappy Tibbons would say: we got a winner! "Tappy's got juice! Tappy's got juice! GOOOOOOOOO Tappy!" (You probably need to have seen Requiem For A Dream to get that reference)


My 2c:

I think the article didn't stress enough the fact that doping is bad. It slowly (or quickly) kills off the person doing the sport. Which, really, is against the point. It leads them to become sick and psychotic (think Chris Benoit).

Vitamins are found in food and are essential to healthy living. It is possible to overdose on Vitamins but the attraction of overdoing them is not really there.

I think that the euphoria and entertainment value of seeing "just how fast can a person run/ride/hit a ball" would fade away quite quickly.

You will always have sports people who would be willing to push the envelope with drugs. "This will kill you in 3 years but until then you will be best"."Yes, please." This leaves the "normal" sports person to have to make a big decision - get out of the sport or (literally) die trying to keep up. If my kids show some talent I don't want to have to talk them out of doing sport because they will end up dead.

Just because we can't police something 100% doesn't mean we shouldn't do it at all. The fact that guys are being caught is actually a good thing. It means that the sport is winning. Further it means that guys who don't take illegal substances are getting a better shot of doing well.

The sport itself may be a bit slower and not as slick but the guys who are at the top are now the guys who did it through hard work and determination and that is something to be proud of.