It's official. Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah last night that he "doped' his way to victory in the sport of cycling. So what? Well, the only reasonable objection is that he violated the rules; but other than that, why would any spectator care? Is the thrill of witnsessing a hard-fought competition thus somehow diminished? If enhancements undermine the competition, why not require cyclists to ride the same sort of bikes that were used in the first Tour de France in 1903? Surely the use of optimized light-weight bikes today is an enhancement?
Speaking of the 1903 Tour de France, "doping" was then an acceptable part of the race. At various points, cyclists evidently used ether, strychnine, and amphetamines to gain an edge. In 1998, a German rider told Der Spiegel:
For as long as the Tour has existed, since 1903, its participants have been doping themselves. No dope, no hope. The Tour, in fact, is only possible because - not despite the fact - there is doping. For 60 years this was allowed. For the past 30 years it has been officially prohibited. Yet the fact remains; great cyclists have been doping themselves, then as now.
Some people will argue that athletes must be protected against the temptataion to use enhancements because they could harm their health. However, athletes already take all kinds of health-harming risks just to play their games. Why shouldn't adults be able to make up their own minds about the risk/reward calculus of using biological enhancements? The best way that policymakers and sports officials can reduce the harm to athletes that might result from using enhancements would be to bring their use out of the shadows and let it be done with the benefit of medical oversight and good research.
A while back, I proposed an experiment in which sports leagues could be divided into the Naturals and the Enhanced. As I wrote:
Why not solve the future problem of gene doping and the current problem of steroid use in professional sports by creating two kinds of sports leagues? One would be free of genetic and pharmacologic enhancements - call them the Natural Leagues. The other would allow players to use gene fixes and other enhancements - call them the Enhanced Leagues. Let fans decide which play they prefer.
Why not indeed?
See my 2005 column, "The Loneliness of the Gene-Enhanced Runner," for the related issue of "gene-doping." Click below to watch Reason TV's "Lance Armstrong Cheated to Win. Is That Wrong?"