Financial Times Editorial Comment: Tour de Farce
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: July 27 2007 19:04 | Last updated: July 27 2007 19:04
We will never know who the best cyclist in the world was this year. The field of this summer’s Tour de France has been decimated, losing its leader, pre-race favourite and several entire teams after riders failed drug tests. Even the suspicion of drug-taking destroys the joy of sport. Big-hitting Barry Bonds of baseball’s San Francisco Giants is closing in on a 30-year-old record for career home runs, but because he is caught up in the BALCO steroids scandal, few are inspired.
There are only two solutions. The first – find a way to detect and disqualify all those who cheat using drugs – just will not work. New compounds, for which there are no tests, are regularly invented, and because the incentives and desire for glory are so great, some athletes will always take them.
The second is to legalise at least some performance-enhancing substances. Under the present anti-doping rules a drug can be banned if it meets two of the following three conditions: it is a risk to athletes’ health, it boosts performance, or it violates “the spirit of sport”.
Relaxing the first condition would be a mistake. The borderline sociopaths who play elite endurance and power sports are not going to resist any legal drug they think will give them an advantage: indeed, they are more likely to compete to see who can take the most of it. Fatal overdoses and illnesses would do even less for the popularity of sport than doping disqualifications.
Performance enhancement, the second condition, is already a matter of drawing the line. There are many legal ways to get better at sport, from sleeping in an oxygen tent, to living at altitude, to doing lots of exercise; Tour de France riders drug their bodies with a plate of pasta every morning. All cause physiological changes and the line could easily be moved to allow more chemicals that do the same.
The real question is the last: does doping violate “the spirit of sport”? Or, to put the question another way, would the legal use of safe drugs make sport more or less exciting, competitive and inspirational? A major argument against drugs is that sport would become less a test of athletes than of pharmaceuticals, resembling Formula One motor racing – where the car matters more than the driver – rather than the purity of a 100m sprint.
But that purity is an illusion in most sports. Golfers use titanium or graphite super-clubs; modern tennis rackets, in the hands of a professional, resemble firearms. Even 100m sprinters have hi-tech running shoes and clothes – quite aside from any undetectable, illegal drugs.
Allowing a free-for-all of drug-taking in sport would be wrong. But given that doping is near impossible to stop, and the corrosive effects when an athlete is suspected or caught, it is time to think about relaxing the rules. Performance-enhancing drugs might be bad for sport, but cheating is a lot worse.