Tuesday, July 17, 2012
A friend of mine is very upset about the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's pursuit of Lance Armstrong, which he decries as a "witch hunt." I'm not sure about that -- not that I have any inside dope (ha!), but it seems they have substantial evidence that Armstrong used erythropoietin, a hormone that stimulates production of red blood cells and gives a boost to endurance athletes.
Howsomever . . .
This is a complicated issue. In the first place, most people, me included, are cynical enough to feel it's likely that the guys who finished in second, third, fourth and fifteenth place were probably using banned performance enhancing drugs too. Everybody knows that you can't win the Tour de France otherwise. But as Greg Downey writes in one of the PLoS blogs, the bans on certain performance enhancing drugs that are now pervasive in sports are largely arbitrary. Indeed, until the mid-20th Century, athletes and trainers openly sought chemical boosts to performance and people thought that was just fine -- admirable in fact. Of course the idea is to look for every edge you can.
The East Germans racked up astonishing Olympic achievements in the 1960s. After the collapse of East Germany, it was discovered that they had been systematically plying their athletes with androgens, and yes, shoving large quantities of male hormones into people, starting in childhood, causes major problems later on, especially for women. The most concrete and compelling argument, for most people, against allowing performance enhancing drugs is that they can be harmful to health and we don't want to encourage kids to take them.
But . . .
Many of the legal things athletes do, including just playing the sport, have long-term detrimental consequences. These include osteoarthritis, which is pretty much guaranteed for anyone who engages in high level athletic training for a long period. Athletes often spend their later years with crippling joint pain. And as you know we're learning more and more about the consequences of repeated blows to the head, even the fairly minor shocks that come from heading a soccer ball or crashing into the outfield wall. Athletes risk serious injury every time they take the field. Sometimes they die.
And, while it's clear that the kinds of massive hormone stuffing practiced by the East Germans caused devastating harm, it's not at all clear what lasting harm, if any, is caused by less aggressive practices, or hormone ingestion that starts later in life. As Downey points out, we now have lots of middle aged men taking androgens to combat ordinary aging. (Probably this is largely a scam, in my view, but that's beside the point.) And Armstrong isn't even accused of that. Erythropoietin, used to excess, does create risks for patients undergoing dialysis or cancer chemotherapy, or with other conditions that deplete red blood cells. Too many RBCs create a risk of heart attacks and stroke. But whether Armstrong's (purported) use was dangerous, especially given his exceptional physical condition and that it was presumably episodic, is not known.
As for fairness, athletes legally use all sorts of very expensive training and coaching aids that only a lucky few have access to. They do all sorts of things to their bodies with unknown consequences, or known negative consequences. And whatever the authorities do to ban specific chemicals, people will always be looking for, and finding, alternative chemicals that aren't banned yet, or ways of evading the tests.
So maybe this is, if not exactly a which hunt, a case of selective prosecution. Perhaps it calls for deeper thinking about the role of sports in the culture, rather than an unreflective punitive response.