The return of the Olympics means that we'll get to enjoy some of those weird and delightful summer sports -- stuff like archery, handball, and synchronized swimming. Unfortunately, it also means the return of a thorny and frustrating subject: doping. In Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat, Chris Cooper, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Essex, provides an extraordinarily thorough account of the history and science of drugs in sports. We tend to think about doping in a relatively unsophisticated way, Cooper argues: It's bad, and we want to stop it. In fact, however, the science of doping is extraordinarily complex, and its history is nuanced and surprising. We need to understand doping better.
The first thing to grasp about doping, Cooper writes, is that, for most of history, no one's cared about it -- the idea of "doping" simply didn't exist. The ancient Greeks were entirely open about their use of nutritional and pharmaceutical aids: "Charmis of Sparta swore that dried figs led him to Olympic gold in 668 B.C.," Cooper writes, while the great Greek physician Galen "noted the positive benefits of eating herbs, mushrooms, and testicles." In 1904, runner Thomas Hicks won the St. Louis Olympic Marathon "on a combination of strychnine injections laced with brandy," and no one seemed to mind; in the inter-war years, scientists on both sides of the Atlantic openly and enthusiastically endorsed performance-enhancing drugs, including cocaine. In the 1930s, British soccer teams proudly boasted about the supplements they used: the Wolverhampton Wanderers, for example, "informed the media of their latest pharmaceutical tricks, publicizing their use of extracts of monkey glands in the newspaper the News of the World." Doping was banned at the Olympics in 1938, but still didn't have a real stigma -- professional athletes continued to use drugs.
For most of history, Cooper writes, "The debate, as far as we can judge, was about methods not morals. The view seemed to be that any way to obtain an edge was fine." Really, Cooper argues, it should come as no surprise that no one cared about doping: Ordinary people were enthusiastic about drugs in everyday life, too. In the 1940s and 50s, it was totally normal for a person to pop an amphetamine pill to boost his mood. It was only when society as a whole turned against drugs after the 1960s that doping in sports became a truly moral issue.
So we are still working out own attitudes toward doping, which are relatively recent -- and those attitudes must contend with the science of doping, which, Cooper shows, is equally double-edged. In the first place, it's hard to know what really works -- and, therefore, which offenses an athlete ought to be punished for. Clinical trials of performance-enhancing drugs, he points out, are of limited relevance to elite athletes, since they have bodies which differ in substantial ways from those of even very fit ordinary people. And, at the highest levels, elite athletes often possess built-in advantages which are 'unfair,' and which can be arranged on a spectrum along with pharmaceutical or nutritional advantages. Some athletes, for example, are "doped" by their genes -- like the Finnish skier Eero Mantyranta, who won seven Olympic medals, in part because he possessed a mutant gene which caused his body to over-produce EPO, a hormone which drives the production of red blood cells. EPO, as it happens, is also a performance-enhancing drug. Similarly, a small percentage of female athletes, Cooper points out, are born with hormonal profiles which give them unusual strength and speed. Above and beyond these issues, there's the fact of "technological doping" -- the benefits which an economically advanced home country can provide for an athlete-in-training.
Doping, in short, is complicated, and hard to talk about in a monolithic way. The only way to make sense of it is to think very carefully, on a case-by-case basis, about which sorts of interventions constitute effective, meaningful cheating. (Some doping interventions might in fact boil down to the placebo effect.) Unfortunately, our approach to doping is as inconsistent as our policy on recreational drugs. Caffeine, for example, has a demonstrable and substantial affect on athletic performance, and yet no one's outlawed it -- almost certainly because it's legal in civilian life. This suggests that many of our attitudes about doping may have little to do with sports. Instead, they proceed out of our moral concerns about drug use in general.
Cooper devotes most of the book to a fine-grained discussion of the science of doping, and shows that it's full of surprising wrinkles and exceptions. As a whole, his account suggests that we are not spending enough money and time to really understand the problem. Ultimately, he makes the case for a more empirical and pro-active approach to thinking about drugs in sports, driven by research. More research would help us anticipate new developments and concentrate on those doping practices which truly create unfairness. "We can no more 'win' a war on drugs in sport than we can 'win' a war on drugs in society," he concludes -- the best we can do is be informed, and to focus on increasing fairness, one case at a time.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.