Malcolm Gladwell continues to argue against the ban on performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in elite athletic competition. Since he is such an intelligent person and such a good writer, he should be held to a much higher standard than he’s managed to meet so far.
One of the problems with Gladwell’s New Yorker article questioning the ban on doping in sports was how vague it was. He strongly hinted that he was in favor of legalizing performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) but chose not to say so directly. Fortunately, he has removed all doubt about his position in a follow-up interview.
In the interview, we learn that Gladwell is in favor of “bringing PEDs in out of the cold” by “liberalizing” the rules against PED use. He supports legalizing and then regulating PEDs according to “medically appropriate principles.” He is also in favor of bringing “total transparency” to elite-level competitive sports by instituting “complete bio-passports for everyone” documenting the PEDs each athlete is taking and what the effects have been on, for example, their hematocrit levels. According to Gladwell, his proposals will help to remedy the terrible unfairness that exists now, where athletes born with unfavorable genetic characteristics are not allowed to use all of the miracles of modern pharmaceutical science to remedy the disadvantages they face when competing against others with natural genetic gifts.
But won’t the average athlete then feel pressured to dope? asks the perceptive and probing interviewer. “I would never imagine that [PED use] would spread to weekend warriors,” replies Gladwell. Practically begged by the interviewer to acknowledge that critics of Alex Rodriguez and Lance Armstrong are correct to condemn these athletes as “cheaters” who willfully flouted the rules against doping, even though those rules might not seem rational to him, Gladwell declines to do so. He prefers instead to call A-Rod a “rebel.” At the end of the interview, Gladwell plays the “that’s-just-the-way-it-is” card, suggesting that our current ban against PEDs is equivalent to pretending that we still live in the nineteenth century.
Does Gladwell imagine that this last barb will sting? If so, he’s mistaken. His entire position is nonsensical at best and for me at least, aesthetically (athletically?) ugly. Some of his critics have suggested that Gladwell’s value system is “messed up,” but that’s actually just fine. His logic is a complete mess.
Item 1: Imagine that we do what Gladwell suggests and legalize all “safe” forms of doping, regulating it according to “medically appropriate principles.” We collect and publish biopassports on all elite athletes, including whatever measurable physiological parameters Gladwell wants to include — hematocrit, VO2 max, lactate threshold, length of Achilles tendons — whatever. What will have changed? There will still be regulations prohibiting “unsafe” PED use that doesn’t adhere to “medically appropriate principles,” and these regulations will need to be policed. There will still be “rebel” athletes like Armstrong and A-Rod who will disagree with where the line has been drawn, and take it upon themselves to surreptitiously cross the line without admitting it. (Will Gladwell then be willing to call these athletes “cheaters”?) There will continue to be technological innovations that allow athletes to artificially increase some parameter that isn’t measured by the biopassports of the time. I can think of several plausible scenarios off the top of my head. How about glycogen storage? Will we measure that in the biopassport, and can we feasibly measure it? What about lung function? What about when a lab comes up with a pill that allows athletes to do the mental things that Gladwell recognizes are so important for elite athletic success but are nevertheless functions of genetic inheritance that Gladwell finds so unfair? Will we (can we?) assign athletes a “willpower” number, a “concentration” number, a “smile all night and focus on your own race a-la Rory Bosio” number for their biopassports? What should we do about the innate intelligence that allows athletes to strategize during a match, to learn from past competitions, and to outthink opponents? What if there were a pill that allowed all of us to become, like Rafael Nadal, the “Leonardo da Vinci of tennis“?
My point is that since Gladwell is still willing to say that he’d draw a line between permitted and forbidden PEDs, the regime that he advocates won’t be any different for the things that mattter to Gladwell than the one that exists now. Natural differences will still exist and will still make competitions “unfair.” If Gladwell imagines that technology can level the natural differences that make up the “great menagerie” and which prevent athletics from being a “contest among equals,” he’s going to have to go a lot further than allowing PEDs. Surgery for everyone to make their calves the same length. Frequent, documented VO2 max testing for all athletes. To imagine trying to eliminate natural differences between athletes is to reject it as impossible. The simple difficulty of distinguishing between differences arising from factors that Gladwell presumably can tolerate (better training, more willpower) from differences that are randomly assigned by genetic luck is enormous and will resist Gladwell’s liberalized PED-with-biopassport system. And so long as there are prohibitions, there will be athletes like Armstrong and A-Rod who will lie and cheat to get around them. These athletes will be “rebels” against Gladwell’s regime of rules, too, but at what point will Gladwell be willing to condemn them as cheaters?
Gladwell’s athletic PED-driven utopia will remain a fantasy. So the practical issue that requires debate is: Gladwell thinks the place where the line between permitted and forbidden athletic augmentation is currently drawn, isn’t drawn in the right place. He wants to draw one someplace else in order to permit more PEDs. But is he persuasive about the need to do this? No he isn’t.
Item 2: If Gladwell has an irrationally rosy view of what PEDs can do to eliminate natural differences between athletes, he has an equally rosy view about the consequences of liberalization for non-elite athletes. As a non-elite athlete myself, I can speak from personal experience that so much of athletic culture arises out of attempts of weekend warriors to emulate the elites. I’ll spend $170 for a pair of Salomon S-Lab Sense trail running shoes because that’s the shoe that Kilian Jornet wears! And Salomon knows this; their enormous budget for athlete sponsorship depends on this being true. Whatever your sport of choice, you don’t have to think for more than a second to know that this is true. Tennis? You want Rafael Nadal’s racket. Cycling? If you could drop five figures in cash for one of the bikes Mark Cavendish uses, you’d do it. We already rush out to the store to buy Udo’s Oil because our favorite runner is adding it to their cottage cheese — if that runner was publicly adding microdoses of epo, only the financial burdens would keep the weekend warriors from using it, too. And anyone who’s seen some fat corporate lawyer pedaling along Lake Michigan in Chicago on a Saturday with his corpulent self perched upon the same bike model Chris Froome rode up the Alpe d’Huez will realize that this financial barrier doesn’t apply to all weekend warriors. Would it really matter if everyday schlubs were taking epo? Maybe, maybe not, but Gladwell is prosaically wrong when he says that they won’t.
Item 3: The safety of PEDs isn’t a binary thing, such that one set of PED regimens are safe, and another set are unsafe. Gladwell imagines that we should permit “safe” PED use, but how do we identify which uses are safe? There are no clearly agreed-upon “medically appropriate principles” that separate reasonable, prudent use of PEDs from unreasonable and imprudent. Like all drugs, the magnitude of the risks from PEDs exist on a spectrum, and the point at which anyone draws a line between “safe” and “unsafe”, “medically appropriate” and not, is always going to be somewhat arbitrary. Gladwell in his interview mentions the current UCI cutoff for a rider’s hematocrit level in cycling – 50%. There is a limit because in the recent past riders have died after their blood sludged in their vessels and stopped flowing because their hematocrits were so high. So the UCI drew an arbitrary line at 50% hematocrit and declared that riders would not be permitted to race if their hematocrit was higher than this. That doesn’t mean that a 50% hematocrit is “safe” while 51% is “unsafe.” 50% is safer than 51%. It is more dangerous than 49%. The safety and risk profile of elevated hematocrit levels is gradually sloping, not binary. The UCI’s limit is, inevitably, an arbitrary one. Perhaps it’s appropriate and perhaps not, but it is arbitrary, and reasonable people will disagree about where to draw the line. If Gladwell is unsatisfied with the current limits, he can’t just say “increase the limit until it becomes unsafe.” He’s got to make the more difficult argument that the inevitable loss of safety he’s proposing will be worth it. He hasn’t made this argument.
Item 4: “Fairness” in sports isn’t the kind of “fairness” that Gladwell says he wants. Gladwell’s use of the word “fair” when applied to sports is very odd. To say that a sporting competition is “fair” usually means that all of the competitors are required to play by the same rules. That they all know what those rules are and that they all abide by them. Gladwell, by contrast, thinks that natural differences in athletic ability between athletes renders the competition “unfair.” This is true in a simplistic sense, and we already do a good job of correcting for this. Sumo wrestling contests between 350-lb men and 35-lb girls are “unfair” in this sense. It is “unfair” to expect a 50-year-old runner to outsprint Usain Bolt over 100 meters. We have age-group awards in marathons because we understand that our athletic ability waxes and wanes over the course of our lives, naturally. We have weight classes in boxing to ensure that fighters with roughly equal physical attributes fight each other. But we don’t prohibit on grounds of “unfairness” someone with a naturally low percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers in their legs from sprinting against Usain Bolt. We’re prepared to say, simply, that this guy just isn’t as good a sprinter as Bolt is, not that Bolt wins “unfairly.”
Our common understanding of what “fair” competition means makes sense. Lance Armstrong was the perpetrator of “unfair” competition when he chose to race the Tour de France using dope. He was not the victim of unfairness because his un-doped hematocrit may have been less than Jan Ullrich’s or Iban Mayo’s.
Gladwell is in a tiny minority of people who evidently derive no pleasure from seeing naturally-gifted athletes demonstrate their natural advantages in competitions against other gifted athletes. It’s a beautiful thing to watch Usain Bolt run precisely because of his natural gifts of speed, which Bolt has augmented to the maximum possible level with training. When I watch Bolt sprint, I’m not rueing how unfair it is that some other sprinter wasn’t born with the same combination of fast-twich muscle fibers, oxygen-utilizing capacity, leg shape, and lung size of Usain Bolt. I feel sad for Malcolm Gladwell that he, apparently, fails to see beauty in Bolt’s running, and sees unfairness instead.
Item 5: Seriously Mr. Gladwell, the nineteenth century? This is the kind of rhetorical device that makes me cringe, and someone with the intelligence and insight of Malcolm Gladwell shouldn’t stoop to using it. Obviously, it’s untrue. Because we prohibit some technologies that improve athletic performance and prohibit others, does not mean we’re somehow anti-technology in general, or that we prefer to live in the past. Even Malcolm Gladwell, presumably, would retain some limits on PED use, and not allow athletes to use any and every technology to help them win, but that doesn’t mean Gladwell is some kind of Luddite. Obviously, neither are Gladwell’s critics who would like to retain the current bans on PEDs in sports.