Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Flaws in a Case for Doping

Malcolm Gladwell has made an argument for doping in sport. Riffing (again) off of David Epstien's The Sports Gene, Gladwell argues that doping in sport actually serves to level the playing field, by helping people to overcome natural limitations. This post explains why Gladwell's argument falls apart.

At The New Yorker Gladwell writes:
The ability to consistently hit a baseball thrown at speeds approaching a hundred miles an hour, with a baffling array of spins and curves, requires the kind of eyesight commonly found in only a tiny fraction of the general population.

Eyesight can be improved—in some cases dramatically—through laser surgery or implantable lenses. Should a promising young baseball player cursed with normal vision be allowed to get that kind of corrective surgery? In this instance, Major League Baseball says yes. Major League Baseball also permits pitchers to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow of their throwing arm with a tendon taken from a cadaver or elsewhere in the athlete’s body. Tendon-replacement surgery is similar to laser surgery: it turns the athlete into an improved version of his natural self.

But when it comes to drugs Major League Baseball—like most sports—draws the line. An athlete cannot use a drug to become an improved version of his natural self, even if the drug is used in doses that are not harmful, and is something that—like testosterone—is no more than a copy of a naturally occurring hormone, available by prescription to anyone, virtually anywhere in the world.
The underlying logic here is as follows:
It is a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference... this kind of achievement [may simply be] worthier than the gold medals of a man with the dumb luck to be born with a random genetic mutation.
In the real world, the use of science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference is commonplace in sports. Think of Lionel Messi's hormone-aided growth treatments as a youth in the Barcelona youth academy. Think of Oscar Pistorius and his blades. Think of Tiger Woods and his lasered eyes and surgically repaired knees.

Performance enhancement through science, technology and expertise is fundamental to sport. But so too is the drawing of lines. Human growth hormone for a kid with growth hormone disorder is deemed acceptable but human growth hormone for a professional cyclist is not. Such decisions reflect both broad social values and the values of the sports community. They are of course arbitrary in important respects, and thus routinely contested, constantly re-negotiated and often, inconsistently applied across specific contexts. Sport governance is of course like governance more generally.

Gladwell apparently does not like the drawing of lines in the context of doping. However, lines must be drawn. I could certainly enhance my performance in the 10,000m by riding a bicycle, but that would against the rules. Doping rules are an extension of the rules which govern competition, and have been developed at the constitutive level. 

Gladwell's general approach to doping only makes sense if anything goes -- once you accept that lines must be drawn between what is acceptable performance enhancement and what is not, then the debate becomes one over where that line should be drawn, and that is how things presently work. The case for drawing lines in a different place is often made, but it is not the argument made by Gladwell.

A less charitable interpretation of Gladwell's call for doping to level the playing field is that he is still smarting from Epstein's solid critique of the 10,000-hour path to expertise popularized by Gladwell in his book Outliers. Perhaps Gladwell is now admitting that exceptional talent does exist, but that it should be neutered so that what really matters is effort, and the 10,000 hours. 

Either way, Gladwell's case for doping falls apart. Sports are governed by rules, and rules governing performance enhancement are necessary and important.


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