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What if doping were legal at the Olympics?

The Olympics is arguably the greatest show of combined physical and mental prowess we’ll ever see. The Games challenge competitors and challenge the watching public to think about the achievements they’re…

Would it be so bad if a pill that improved athletic performance was available to everyone? Dave Campbell

The Olympics is arguably the greatest show of combined physical and mental prowess we’ll ever see. The Games challenge competitors and challenge the watching public to think about the achievements they’re witnessing. At London 2012, we will likely be both elated by a new Olympic world record and deflated by yet another doping incident.

But what if doping was legal at the Games? What would the problems be, and what would the event look like?

Obviously if everyone had access to the same drugs - equally distributed - there would be no question of cheating through drugs. Equally obviously, if the drugs used were bad for short-term health, they would not be used by athletes. Poor health is detrimental to sporting achievement.

But would such an Olympics be fair? Even if the next Olympics was entirely populated by doped athletes – each given the same drug for their particular sport – there would be an overwhelming question of whether sport was unfair.

Drugs aren’t the only training aid: not everyone has the money to pay for swimming lessons, the best running shoes or the best coaches.

And even if the drugs had minimal short- or long-term side-effects – akin to nutritional supplements - there would still be nagging questions about the overall health of elite sportspeople who endure extraordinarily high rates of injury as a by-product of intensive training.

It’s probably been a while since you saw an Olympics without dope. Boston Public Library

But what about the audience: would they see an Olympic Games that was more or less interesting? That depends on what kind of drugs were available.

Let’s suppose there’s a magic pill for each Olympic event. Given a minimal number of training hours, and taking the magic pill a specific number of hours before the race, each athlete would run, swim or throw exactly the same. It would be a sporting disaster, but a triumph for biotechnology.

What if the magic pill was not so magic? What if this magic pill had rather less-certain impacts upon sporting achievement – rather like stimulants, steroids and blood doping? If some of our suspicions are correct, it wouldn’t be particularly different to today’s Olympics, because many athletes might already be on such drugs but mask them well.

But even if this was not the case, drug use of this sort would be an additional factor, not the factor, in determining the race order. All the banned supplements in the world – at correct doses – won’t overcome the need for lots and lots of training.

So far, spectators seem to prefer sports without drugs. Sandor Weisz

For the spectator, the results would probably look roughly the same, possibly after a slight spike in Olympic records after the introduction of legal doping. The element of uncertainty, so vital for sport, would still be there. Ethically, depending where you put drug use among the many other forms of unfairness, the doped results may be the same.

But doping isn’t just pills and shots. What about gene doping? Swimmers with webbed feet, long jumpers with extraordinarily long legs, marathon runners whose have not a gram of extra weight.

The list of potential modifications is endless, as are the ethical concerns stemming from such scenarios.

So far genetics has shown much potential but very little in the way of designing human shapes and sizes. Gene doping is likely to result in minor changes to the body and impossible-to-predict results on performance. I suspect the element of sporting uncertainty would still exist.

There is no advocating here – just a dose of realism. An Olympics on dope would be an uncomfortable prospect. The possibility of openly using doping products would send out a disturbing message to aspiring athletes and may result in further damage to the long-term health of elite athletes.

But as to what it would look like: while some records may tumble, they probably wouldn’t fall by much. And while some new drugs might be found that market themselves as the drug for 100m, 200m, 1500m runners, they are unlikely to be as magical as the spectacle we are currently witnessing.

Join the conversation

7 Comments sorted by

  1. matt88

    logged in via Twitter

    May the best drugs win I say.

  2. Seán McNally

    Market and Social Researcher at eris strategy

    Interesting article Simone. My guess is that as the drugs we use in our everyday for treatment reasons take on more of the same qualities as the drugs used for sport, our personal concerns will deminish.

    However, the side-effects issue and lack of access will be the continual barrier to acceptance of performance enhacing drugs. It is hard to image that Australia, China, USA or any other country would happily spend millions on athletes then allow drugs developed in their own countries with…

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  3. Tim Scanlon

    Author and Scientist

    According to the reports that the IOC commissioned drugs are already prevalent in the Olympics and what was needed was a more level playing field that allowed all athletes to take drugs in a controlled manner to reduce harms.

    I think we assume that there aren't advantages from drugs, training, coaches, equipment, etc. We are also assuming that the records are being set by people who aren't on drugs already. But the studies show that there are many athletes that are using ever edge they can get. I'd argue that the harm minimisation will help the athletes and will be better for the Olympics.

    Another point is that the athletes that make it to elite levels have always had to work had and be the best. Take a look at just about any athlete and you will find they were setting the school records, then the college records, before setting world records. The hard work and natural ability are still the cornerstones of their assent to the top of the athletic heap.

  4. Daryl Adair

    Associate Professor of Sport Management at University of Technology, Sydney

    Simon, a thoughtful piece indeed. Thank you. I would like to comment on this point you make: 'If everyone had access to the same drugs – equally distributed – there would be no question of cheating through drugs." To me, this has always been a major weakness in arguments by Julian Savulescu and others who simply say "let everyone use drugs because testing is inadequate ... etc, etc.". We already have major performance differentials on account of very different access to sports science, training equipment…

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  5. James Heathers

    PhD Candidate in Applied Physiology at University of Sydney

    Top article. Several points immediately occur:

    1) the distribution of records, as you say, is unlikely to change much, especially considering that some of the records which currently exist that have the most longevity were recorded in a non-tested environment but after the 'first wave' of anabolic enhancement in the 60s.

    2) to extend Prof. Adair's point (it is unlikely that equal access to drugs could ever be achieved) - this is an inevitability, when we are dealing with selective androgen…

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  6. Glen Turner

    Network Engineer

    Both weightlifting and cycling have had issues with doping, so you could use them as a guide.

    1) More athletes would die on the field and whilst training. Drugs are not free of side-effects. Some supplements are no better (from the end of this month the poplar DMAA supplement will be listed as a poison).

    Medical supervsion is no answer, since doctors are part of the modern doping problem. One of the secrets of modern cycling is the use of IV drips for rehydration. These allow athletes to go…

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    1. Michael Hay


      In reply to Glen Turner

      The problem of drug-taking began with professionalism in sport. It PAID to be better than anyone else. To my mind, sporting bodies must resist the influence of performance-enhancing drugs and the penalty meeted out to a drug-taking athlete should be a life-time ban from that, or any other, professional sport. The penalty MUST be draconian enough for the athlete to personally reject the ingestion of drugs. Merely divesting the athlete of his/her medallion is not enough - they had their moment of glory; their publicity and their popularity are well remembered. These are are factors to be countered and annulled.