The Ethics of Sports: 'We Need an Open Market for Doping'

It is commonly accepting that doping in sports should be strictly prohibited. But Oxford bio-ethicist Julian Savulescu disagrees. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE on the eve of the London Olympics, he explains why bans are unrealistic and demands an open market for doping.

Cyclists in the Tour de France, an event that has often been overshadowed by doping. Zoom

Cyclists in the Tour de France, an event that has often been overshadowed by doping.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Professor Savulescu, you would like to see the ban on doping lifted, arguing that would make sports fairer and would promote athlete health. Are you serious?

Savulescu: Absolutely. The war on doping must inevitably fail, because the incentive for the athletes is just too high. The potential profit is huge, the chance of getting caught is rather small and largely a question of money. Rich teams can buy the latest, almost undetectable substances and evade detection, others cannot. The biggest loser is the honest athlete who does not dope and as a consequence cannot compete anymore.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You're an ethicist. Is it not too simple to say that something illegal should be legalized only because the majority is doing it?

Savulescu: My field is practical ethics. I am concerned with what is realistic. It is perfectly ok to demand that all sports should be totally free of doping. But that is not realistic. So we have to go for the second best option, which is having an open market for doping.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Relaxing the ban would very likely lead to even more doping because athletes would have no choice if they wanted to remain competitive. How is such a situation conducive to athlete health?

Savulescu: Because everything would take place under the supervision of physicians and only the use of substances that are considered safe would be allowed.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Medical experts say that for many performance-enhancing drugs, there is no such thing as a safe dosage.

Savulescu: That's nonsense. One molecule of a growth hormone could not harm you, neither could two molecules. Finding and administering the safe dose is precisely what would be done in an open doping market.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you saying that doping can be done without risk?

Savulescu: Of course there are certain risks connected with the usage of performance-enhancing drugs. But sport is almost always dangerous. Long-distance runners can suffer sudden cardiac death when doing altitude training. Boxers risk severe brain damage. Cyclists careening downhill at speeds exceeding 70 kilometers per hour risk their lives. These dangers are far greater than those connected with controlled and responsible use of drugs -- and we accept them.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What doctors do you think would be prepared to administer drugs to perfectly health athletes merely to enhance their performance?

Savulescu: That depends on how much these doctors are paid, and many sports teams have a lot of money.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you not think that the administration of drugs absent a medical condition is more of an ethical question than a financial one?

Savulescu: It does raise an interesting ethical dilemma. Were there not enough doctors doing it, people would start to go on the black market. I think it is part of the doctors' professional obligation to more broadly protect athletes' health rather than saying "no, I won't do it, that's their own problem." They have an obligation to provide doping services, like they offer abortion services, even if they might personally object to abortion.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Comparing doping in sports with abortion -- that seems a little off the mark.

Savulescu: Not at all. Pregnancy is not a disease, so abortion is no therapy. In most cases, it is a reproductive enhancement. It helps people decide when to have children and how many of them. Only a tiny amount of abortions are done for medical reasons, the overwhelming majority are done for social reasons, including in Germany. And of course, we have a whole system of regulations to prevent backyard abortions -- as we should in doping.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How would you decide which substances to ban and which ones to allow?

Savulescu: In an open system, prosecutors could concentrate on three things: First, an absolute ban on the use of performance enhancers in children. Second, the detection of very unsafe substances. Third, a ban on substances which corrupt the nature of a particular sport -- like in boxing, drugs which suppress pain and fear, or beta-blockers in archery and snooker. The regulated use of substances such as growth hormones, anabolic steroids, EPO, beta-blockers and neuro-enhancers such as modafenil would be allowed.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What about the use of genetic therapies and neurological enhancements?

Savulescu: Genetic manipulations should be ruled out at this stage because they would fundamentally change the equation and could make sports uninteresting. The same is true for neuro-enhancers, which shorten reaction times, for example. Substances like steroids, however, only augment what you do anyway.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: If everyone is doped, will people still want to watch?

Savulescu: Sports would continue to be substantially dependent on human weaknesses and strengths -- determination, courage, tenacity, strength of will. Look at the Tour de France: Even with doping, it is still an enormous physical challenge to get to the top. Enhancing human performance is not necessarily dehumanizing people. It can be. But the mistake people make in their absolute zero tolerance approach is to put all the performance enhancers into one category.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You say you are concerned with what is realistic. Do you really think national and international sports organizations would play along? Would countries change their laws, even though public opinion is against doping? Would pharmaceutical companies invest years of research and large amounts of money to develop performance-enhancing drugs and get them approved by the authorities?

Savulescu: Look, there are two views of the use of ethics. There's what I call the evangelistic missionary model: We go out and try to convert the world according to what we think is good and right. I don't hold this model of ethics, I have a rationalistic view. I try to put reason into the public's mind, trying to promote public debate. People have a lot of deficiencies, politicians have a lot of deficiencies. We get a lot of deficient laws and policies. I don't expect people to change the laws in Germany or anywhere else, that's not my job. My job is to provide the arguments so people can consider them. And perhaps over time, things will change.

Interview conducted by Markus Becker


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About Julian Savulescu
  • Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics
    Julian Savulescu is a Romanian-Australian philosopher. He is a professor of applied ethics at the University of Oxford, head of the Melbourne-Oxford Stem Cell Collaboration and editor-in-chief of the widely respected Journal of Medical Ethics. He focuses on the ethical aspects of biomedicine, including doping, but primarily genetic research and work with embryonic stem cells.