Sep 042013

Malcolm Gladwell asks a provocative question about doping in sports — why not?

He imagines baseball player and accused doper Alex Rodriguez asking why, if pitchers can use the technological marvels of Tommy John surgery to prolong their careers, why shouldn’t he be able to use the technological marvels of endocrinology (e.g. erythropoetin injections) to prolong his own career? Gladwell also imagines Lance Armstrong, cyclist and serial doper, asking why “one man is allowed to have lots of red blood cells and another man is not?” when the only difference between the two men is that one has lots of red blood cells from birth, because of genetics, while the other achieves the same physiological condition by doping.

Lance Armstrong (Mike Hutchings, Reuters)

Dope: Lance Armstrong (Mike Hutchings, Reuters)

Gladwell suggests that we embrace a “vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference.” The implied suggestion is that we legalize doping as a form of science that can compensate for natural differences. We embrace much of this technological vision already, so long as the science and intelligence extends to better shoes or better surgeries for injury, but not to erythropoetin or anabolic steroids. Gladwell is provoking those of us who oppose doping to explain why we don’t like it — and that’s a lot more difficult than it might seem at first.

I am disappointed that Gladwell seems unable to explicitly state that he’s arguing for a legalization of doping in sports. I’m disappointed that he seems unable to bring himself to acknowledge that most of the moral condemnation of athletes like A-Rod and Armstrong comes not from the fact that they doped, but from the fact that they violated explicit rules against doping and then lied about it. Set those things aside, though, and what’s left is an interesting question: why not allow athletes to dope? That would give us the kind of athletics Gladwell seems to pine for, the kind of sports where there are no restrictions on “taking the body that nature [has] given you and forcibly changing it.”

As an athlete, I aspire to bring out the best performances I can given the limits I was born with. I like training for competitions not just because I want to beat people in races but also because I enjoy optimizing my own performance, given my natural talents and limits. For me, it’s not all about forcibly changing my body through any means available, it’s about becoming more healthy and fit. I don’t think that goal is compatible with taking epo. But this is a deeply personal reason why I don’t dope.

As a spectator, I’m opposed to doping on aesthetic grounds. I just finished pulling an all-nighter refreshing iRunFar’s live coverage of the 2013 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. 2469 mountain runners started this race around the base of Mont Blanc, but as usual, by 80 kms into the race, the expected elites were running well in front of the enormous field. It wasn’t surprising that people like Julien Chorier, Miguel Heras, and Timothy Olson were among the few athletes contending for podium spots. These elite runners were at the front because they had done the arduous training for a race like the UTMB, but also because they almost certainly have the genetic characteristics that enable them to excel at long mountain trail races.

For me — and this is where I seem to differ from Gladwell — these advantages conferred at birth don’t make it less interesting to watch these athletes perform. In fact, I enjoy watching how much better these naturally gifted people can run precisely because of these genetic differences that the athletes themselves had no control over. My appreciation for watching Kilian Jornet run up a hill faster than anyone else is increased, not decreased, by my knowledge that Jornet has such a high VO2 max, a physiologic characteristic determined in part by training but also in large part by genetics. So that’s what a high VO2 max looks like!

Oihana Kortazar atop the Zegama-Aizkorri podium (photo: iRunFar)

No dope: Oihana Kortazar atop the Zegama-Aizkorri podium (photo: iRunFar)

In contrast, as soon as I know or suspect that Lance Armstrong is climbing Mont Ventoux so well because he’s injecting epo or taking steroids, I lose interest. His performance loses any ability to inspire or awe because what I’m seeing is his body’s response to dope and not his naturally given talent. One way to state my objection is that I’m not interested in seeing what Gladwell seems to want to see, what he describes as “a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference.” Instead, I’d like to see “a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to make the most of the natural differences we’re given from birth.” For me, the beauty of competition is exactly the revealing and display of those natural differences which seem to bother Gladwell so much. (Set aside the likelihood that “sheer will” is itself a natural difference — why does Gladwell not object to competitions on this ground?)

So I have an aesthetic difference with Gladwell, but I also think his vaguely-stated argument for doping is weak on its merits. Assuming doping is legalized, presumably athletes would then have to rely on other differences between them in order to win competitions. But are those other differences so different from the ones Gladwell thinks would be erased with doping? Armstrong’s defenders often make the plausible argument that he won races not because he doped, but because he doped better than anyone else in a peloton where everyone was doping. But how did Armstrong manage to do this? He might have been smarter (a natural difference), more unscrupulous (presumably a natural difference), or he might have just been luckier (which is exactly the kind of natural difference when applied to muscle strength or VO2 max that Gladwell wants to eliminate with dope). Or it might turn out that Armstrong was simply blessed with a body — from birth — that responded better than his rivals’ to erythropoeitin and steroids. If Gladwell is objecting to the unfairness of natural differences per se among athletes, allowing for doping isn’t going to solve the problem. Competitions between doped athletes will simply shift into a different arena where other natural differences become important.

And what of Gladwell’s point that a ban on doping seems arbitrary when other means of “taking the body that nature [has] given you and forcibly changing it” are allowed? Why ban doping but allow reconstructive surgery? Why ban erythropoeitin but allow iodine supplementation? There’s an easy version of this question, when surgery is used to repair an injury or iodine supplementation is used to reverse a deficiency that causes goiter, but what about the hard case? Why not have surgery before any injuries in order to prevent them? Why not acknowledge that taking steroids is similar to taking nutritional supplements?

Almost any line you can draw between methods of improving performance that are allowed and those that are not will be somewhat arbitrary — there will be methods that could arguably fall on either side of the line. But that’s not an argument for not drawing a line, that’s just an acknowledgment that at the margins the interpretation of rules and laws is subtle and requires judgment that will always be somewhat arbitrary. We can argue about where exactly to draw the line, but only after we agree that a line should be drawn somewhere. I think the current line allowing athletes to supplement their diets with fish oil but not with anabolic steroids is a good place to draw the line. Fish oil is more like food and less like a drug; fish oil has few negative side-effects, steroids have many dangerous side effects. Perhaps it’s merely an aesthetic difference that I have with Gladwell and maybe Gladwell will condescend to arguing more specifically where he’d like to see the line between permitted and forbidden drawn.

But Gladwell — with allowances for his vague hinting and his beating-around-the-bush — seems to want to say that there ought not to be any lines, that any means at all of “forcibly changing” the body that nature has given you should be permitted. That’s certainly one vision of athletic competition, but not one that I want to see.

If Gladwell is right that allowing doping really would level the playing field and narrow arbitrary natural differences, it would drain competitions between elites of the beauty that the revelation of natural differences through training and competition reveal. It would make the top performers even more freakishly different from the rest of us who don’t dope than they are now. Gladwell might revel in that torturing of nature, but I wouldn’t.

But if Gladwell is wrong (as I think he is) that doping would eliminate natural differences between athletes, then we would still be stuck with the “fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity” that Gladwell thinks is a such a problem. In addition, though, legal doping would subject elite athletes to more of the unpleasant and dangerous side-effects of the technological tortures that would be required to win top events.

In the interest of communicating some of the revulsion I feel about removing limits on doping, I’ll reach for florid language. Gladwell’s regime would turn the Tour de France and the UTMB into a freak show between cyborgs with “thin papery skin” who can’t sit still in a chair because they have no buttocks. In Gladwell’s regime, the beauty of seeing a supremely healthy Kilian Jornet or Sage Canaday run off the front of the pack would be obscured by Jornet’s or Canaday’s muddling along amid a pack of amped-up products of Amgen and Glaxo with buffalo humps and tiny testicles (and that’s only the best-case scenario, where doping works as intended and Kilian and Sage don’t dope). We’d certainly do more to take the bodies nature has given us and forcibly change them. But instead of shaping a healthy Kilian Jornet or Ellie Greenwood with training and diet that revealed those athletes’ beautiful biological gifts that they received from birth, much like Michelangelo revealed a beautiful David by shaping marble, we’d likely manufacture a pack of freaks that resemble Michael Jackson in the years just before he managed to overdose on that other technological marvel, propofol.

Gladwell might want to see more of that, but I don’t.