Making the case for performance-enhancing drugs

Illustration by Christina Ung

You can dislike Alex Rodriguez for myriad reasons, from his selfishness on the field to his startling lack of self-awareness off of it. But you shouldn’t dislike Rodriguez because he used performance-enhancing drugs. That’s the least of his wrongs. And here’s why.

All manner of athletic doping, encompassing all performance-enhancing drugs, hormones, operations and techniques, should be permitted for consenting adults across all levels of sport. Performance-enhancing drugs and methods should not be barred; they should be embraced. We should keep complete and thorough public records of exactly what every athlete has taken, when they have taken it and how much of it they took. A global sporting body should be founded called the World Doping Association, and they should manufacture, provide and aid in the use of all kinds of performance-enhancing drugs. The incredible amount of modern research and development in the field of endocrinology should be utilized to allow athletes of all races, genders, creeds and abilities to enhance their performance through chemical or hormonal means. The World Doping Association should make a great deal of money from this pursuit and funnel much of the profits back into the implementation and advancement of organized sports in developing countries. Every time an athlete injects a vial of EPO, a child in Somalia should get a pair of running shoes. Making these reforms would not only cease our futile manhunt for—and ridiculous persecution of—those who wish to compete at the highest level possible, but spread the incredibly beneficial, character-building qualities of sport throughout the globe. This would not only eliminate a current problem, it would solve a multitude of others. Calling it a win-win would be an understatement.

Chances are, though, you just saw the words “doping” and “athletic” in the same sentence and subconsciously registered a negative opinion. Chances are you believe doping is bad. You believe it’s a scourge to both professional and amateur sports; that it should be outlawed; that anyone who dares attempt it in athletic competition should be reprimanded severely.

A good percentage of us believe this because we’ve grown up in a world where this principle is the status quo, in spite of an overwhelming amount of reason and logic in favour of performance enhancers. There are four primary reasons why the majority of athletes, sporting officials and observers feel performance-enhancing drugs should be banned. Here they are, and here’s why they’re all bunk.


Most people believe that sports should test the athletic abilities of humans in an unbiased and equitable fashion. If Competitor A is using performance enhancers that Competitor B is not, then Competitor A has an unfair advantage. All competitors should arrive at the field of play via the same means and opportunities; it would be unfair to wage a fire-building contest if one participant had matches and the other had two stones. Sure, that’s fine.

But sport is a different animal, especially at the Olympic and professional levels. We are dealing with the top one percent of the top one percent, the best in the world at what they do. It takes more than just hard work to get there. The vast majority of professional athletes and Olympians are innately talented at their craft; it’s a gift. Take the most decorated Olympian of all time, swimmer Michael Phelps. He has a plethora of Olympic medals; another thing he has is a disproportionate wingspan for his body. Phelps stands 193 centimetres tall, but his wingspan stretches 203 centimetres, an abnormal discrepancy considering the height and wingspan of most mortals are nearly identical. Phelps is also double-jointed in his knees and ankles, a hypermobility trait that allows him to stretch further and utilize a greater range of motion than the average human. These peculiarities essentially turn Phelps’s arms into paddles and his legs into flippers, making him naturally predisposed to be a fantastic swimmer.

And what’s fair about that? The average person could train just as hard as Phelps did in his prime, logging countless hours in the pool and eating 10,000-calorie breakfasts, and never come close to what Phelps is capable of because they’re burdened with a traditional wingspan and ordinary joints.

These advantageous attributes can be found across most sports. In his 2013 book The Sports Gene, David Epstein revealed numerous examples, including why Bahamian high jumper Donald Thomas was able to win gold at the World Championships just eight months after taking up the sport (he was born with an unusually long Achilles tendon, which gave him more spring, much like a kangaroo) and why Finnish cross-country skier Eero Mantyranta was able to dominate his sport in the 1960s, winning seven medals across three Olympic Games (Mantyranta was born with a genetic mutation that caused him to overproduce red blood cells, giving his blood the capacity to carry about 65 percent more oxygen than the average person, replenishing muscles faster and preventing fatigue).

Sports are inherently unfair. These anomalies are everywhere. Try as you might, you’ll never be as good at jumping as Thomas or as fleet on skis as Mantyranta. We can impose rules and regulations to encourage fairness in sports—no doping, no stimulants, no high-tech swim suits—but it’s a fool’s pursuit. Someone with a genetic advantage will still show up and unfairly beat everyone else. So why bother with the incredible ordeal of policing suspected drug use when you’re doing it in the name of preserving fairness in a realm that is, by nature, unfair? It’s not a sound reason.

Rather, we should encourage athletes who want to use performance enhancers to allow themselves to work harder, as they try to keep up with those who won the genetic lottery. The most popular performance-enhancing method for endurance athletes, blood doping, simply increases the body’s hematocrit, which is the percentage of red blood cells in the blood. Few will ever be able to naturally produce as many red blood cells as Mantyranta, but with the aid of blood doping or erythropoietin injections (also known as EPO, which Lance Armstrong made famous), they can at least put in the incredible amount of effort it would take to reach a level that comes naturally for him.


Stand on the sidelines at an NFL game or ringside at a UFC fight and tell me in earnest that those sports are safe. Tell me there’s nothing going on there that could possibly cause harm. If we were really interested in protecting all athletes from harm, we wouldn’t let them become athletes in the first place. Of the 34 NFL players who had their brain tissue examined by the Boston University School of Medicine following their deaths, 33 had clear signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease. And former hockey players—including Bob Probert and Derek Boogaard—have also been found to have suffered from CTE.

Harm is inherent in sports. It’s unavoidable. The human body is not designed to throw 95-mph fastballs repeatedly every five days; or to run down a field while 300-lb. men drive their shoulders into your knees; or to ride a bicycle up and down the hills of France for 21 days and 3,400 km. These actions are all incredibly unsafe. They cause great, irreversible harm to the human body.

Meanwhile, many performance enhancers aren’t as unsafe as the average person might think—and we could make them safer if athletes weren’t hiding their use of them. Autologous blood doping (which uses your own blood) has far fewer side effects than homologous blood doping (which uses a donor’s), especially when done properly to avoid contamination. Testosterone, which the male body produces naturally and has been medically prescribed with increasing regularity in the past decade, is well known for its cosmetic side effects (shrunken testicles, enlarged breasts) but has not been scientifically proven to be life threatening in the long run. And alertness-enhancing stimulants such as ephedrine and amphetamine, which are banned by Major League Baseball and other sporting bodies, have temporary side effects just like any other drug, but aren’t dangerous when taken in small doses.

Ironically, the ban on doping is making performance-enhancing methods more dangerous. Instead of using reliable, well-produced drugs, hormones or transfusions in controlled environments, athletes looking for an edge are turning to underworld dealers and seedy providers; they have no guarantee that what they are using is safe and they are often using these substances on their own, without medical supervision. If the World Anti-Doping Agency were to become the World Doping Agency and regulate the production and distribution of performance enhancers, athletes would be at less risk.

No one’s suggesting performance enhancers aren’t potentially harmful, especially when used improperly over a length of time, as many athletes have done in the past. But putting too much sugar in your coffee over a length of time can be harmful as well. The same can be said of practically everything you can buy at a drugstore. Many of the more damaging effects of steroids stem from improper use, in part because athletes are ingesting them without medical supervision. The World Doping Agency could regulate the production and distribution of performance enhancers, putting athletes at less risk.

We would also then be able to begin more sophisticated research into the effects of performance enhancers. Currently, we don’t know enough about how harmful many of the steroids and performance enhancers to emerge in the past few years actually are, because no professional athletes or Olympians would ever admit to steroid use and volunteer themselves for study. If we could just do away with doping bans, we could finally learn a thing or two about doping.


In the 1960s and ’70s there was a soft-throwing left-hander with a sinking fastball and a good curve by the name of Tommy John. He pitched 10 seasons as an effective starter for the Indians, White Sox and Dodgers before he blew his arm out in 1974, tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow, rendering him unable to throw a baseball with any power or accuracy. Like so many great pitchers before him—Russ Ford, Bill James, Sandy Koufax—who had the primes of their athletic lives ripped away by arm injuries, his promising career was thought to be finished at the age of 31.

But Frank Jobe, a doctor with the Dodgers, had an idea. What if he took a relatively unneeded ligament from another part of the body—in John’s case, from his right wrist—and grafted it where his UCL once was? The procedure revitalized John’s career, and he went on to pitch 14 more seasons, including three of 20 wins or more, after the surgery. The man pitched professionally until he was 46. At the time he had it done, few in baseball believed the operation was legitimate or even potentially effective. Today, it’s called Tommy John surgery, and nearly a third of current MLB pitchers have had it.

Here’s the rub: Tommy John surgery is a performance enhancer. As are cataract surgery, laser-eye surgery and internal fixation procedures, which stabilize bones with screws and plates. These operations all use unnatural means to improve and advance the body, making it better able to perform. Countless athletes have used them to improve performance and have been celebrated for prolonging their careers. But if those athletes arrived at the same result via testosterone, growth hormones or anabolic steroids, they would be publicly shamed and banished from their sports.

So, what’s the difference? Why are surgical operations that improve the human body fine, while the use of drugs or hormones to do the same is not? As a culture, we’ve drawn some strange moral lines. The use of HGH, which increases lean body mass and reduces fat, isn’t allowed, but using creatine, a popular supplement that has a similar effect, is permitted. You can take a shot of Toradol, a drug invented in a lab, to numb pain and ignore an injury, but you can’t take a shot of testosterone to end the pain and heal the injury. Blood doping is widely banned, but platelet-rich plasma therapy, which also involves the centrifuging and reinjection of an athlete’s blood, is a common treatment among athletes looking to speed up recovery times.

Maybe Bobby Orr’s knees would have allowed him to play past 30 if today’s wide and diverse selection of steroids and muscle-builders were made available to him. Maybe Bo Jackson, one of the greatest, most versatile athletes professional sports has ever seen, could have played baseball and football into his 30s if he were allowed to rehabilitate the incredible amount of wear and tear inflicted on his body from playing two sports. But we’ll never know.


They talk about adding asterisks to the record books; about preserving the integrity of the game; about how the drug-enabled athletic accomplishments of today are tarnishing the legitimate performances of decades past. And they talk about it as if high-level sports were a principled, incorrupt business before the steroid boom of the late 1980s and ’90s. Yeah… about that.

Blood doping is thought to have begun sometime in the 1970s, but was not outlawed until 1986, meaning many endurance athletes received blood transfusions before competing at the Olympics. Kaarlo Maaninka, a Finnish distance runner, won two medals at the 1980 Olympics after doping. At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, a third of the U.S. cycling team received blood transfusions, a practice that likely contributed to the team’s nine medals, the first medals for the United States in cycling in more than 70 years. In MLB, the six top single-season home run totals all belong to individuals connected to anabolic steroids, and decades upon decades of stats were compiled by players using methamphetamines, which are now banned. All seven of the Tour de France titles Lance Armstrong was stripped of in 2012 were inherited by runners-up who were also implicated in doping scandals.

Doping is already deeply woven into sporting history, and there is legitimate reason to believe steroid use is just as widespread today as it has ever been. Current anti-doping efforts simply are not working. Those who design and distribute performance-enhancing drugs have demonstrated the ability to stay several steps ahead of testing practices. WADA’s general director said on the eve of the Sochi Olympics that it would be “naive” to think none of the athletes at the Games were doping. Around the same time, a German broadcaster sent undercover reporters to Moscow to meet a scientist from the Russian Academy of Sciences who was selling a drug named Full Size MGF, a muscle-growth agent that is currently undetectable by WADA’s tests. Insulin-like Growth Factor-1, a muscle-building protein that was allegedly provided to Alex Rodriguez and other MLB players through the Biogenesis clinic in Florida as recently as 2013, is undetectable through the most commonly used urine tests. Myostatin inhibitors, which block the body’s natural ability to regulate muscle growth, are being designed to leave no trace in the body once an athlete stops taking them, making the art of not getting caught a simple matter of timing.

This is the world we live in. Technology, science and sports are intrinsically tangled. Muscle-building and red-blood-cell-producing drugs that could be used as steroids or performance enhancers are constantly being developed regardless of their ban in most sports. Their primary use is often medical and their benefits to the treatment of many diseases and ailments far outweigh any perceived negatives of athletic doping (in fact, if doping were allowed there would be even more money backing the research and development of drugs used for performance enhancement that may also benefit the population at large). Many like to close their eyes and romanticize about integrity in sports, but an overwhelming amount of evidence points to the fact that honour often comes nowhere near the equation when athletes compete at the highest level. Doping is a part of sports history. It’s time to accept that.

And it’s also time to make a clear, all-encompassing decision on whether athletes are allowed to use stimulants, supplements and muscle-builders or not, instead of cherry-picking certain drugs and hormones to ban, further convoluting the system. What we have now is a flawed policing structure that allows those who break the rules to escape discipline through technicalities and loopholes—like Ryan Braun, whose 2011 positive test for testosterone went unpunished because its handler didn’t get it to FedEx in time, or American cyclist Tyler Hamilton, who was caught doping at the 2004 Olympics (he would later admit to it as well) but kept his gold medal because Olympic officials mistakenly froze his sample, making it impossible to retest.

Maybe integrity in sports should sound more like this: allowing consenting adults to make their own decisions regarding what they do with their bodies, and allowing those who want to work harder than their more genetically gifted peers the opportunity to do so, and to have it actually pay off. Performance-enhancing drugs are not magical shortcuts. One cannot take a bunch of steroids, never train, and suddenly become fantastic at sports. That’s not how it works. What these drugs and hormones allow athletes to do is train harder for longer and recover from injuries more quickly. Being a high-level athlete requires an insanely specified, obsessive training regimen. The unfortunate side effect of such extreme training is, of course, weariness and injury. What steroids do is help athletes overcome the human body’s natural tendency to fatigue, exhaust and break. They give athletes more energy to spend in the gym and less time lost rehabilitating injuries. They make it possible to be even more devoted to their sport.

And why wouldn’t we want to see the world’s greatest athletes performing at their absolute peak and missing less time with injuries? Our society seems instinctively averse to performance-enhancing drugs, but that flies in the face of a growing mountain of reason and logic that speaks to their benefits. It’s time to rethink things.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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