Drug cheats

Everybody hates drug cheats. But that doesn’t seem to stop it happening, and it’s easy enough to see why.

I just finished the Bridge to Brisbane 10km fun run. I was doing really well on my training, and seemed certain to beat my personal best when I started getting knee pains – nothing really bad, but enough that I stopped before it got any worse. I got some help from the physio and did lots of stretches, but it was still a problem. So, on the day, I just took a couple of ibuprofen, and did my best to ignore it[1]. And, if I could have taken a pill that would fix my knees for me, I would have done so.

Am I, then, a budding drug cheat?

fn1. updated My friend and colleague Flavio Menezes (who beat me by 3 minutes) advises me that my time was 53:20, which is (just) a PB. My knees advise me that they will forgive me just this once. And, I should mention that, thanks to a series of miscalculations, i did the run with no assistance from caffeine, the wonder drug on which I rely for all things. So, with good knees and strong coffee, I can still hope to break 50.

Ibuprofen is on the approved list, but on some of the more puritanical views of the question, taking it before a run/race is morally dubious performance enhancement.

More relevant than the official classification is my motivation. I don’t want to get an unfair advantage, just to do the best I can without being hampered by injury. But of course I wouldn’t have the injury if I hadn’t trained for the race. And the main function of a lot of the banned drugs is to allow you to recover faster from training injuries, and therefore to train harder. If I can justify taking a drug to achieve a PB in a fun run, how much stronger is the case as it would present itself to a full-time athlete, even leaving aside the financial rewards of success.

Then there’s the question of long-term damage. In my case, the big risk is not that I will suffer ill effects from drugs but that, if I ignore the warnings from pain, I’ll wreck my knees. That raises some questions about the most reasonable argument for laws against performance-enhancing drugs, namely that they have bad long-run effects on athletes’ health. The problem is, so do a lot of the sports themselves, and the training required for them. Up to a point, that’s obviously outweighed by the health benefits of physical activity, but I suspect a lot of training regimes go past that point.

I don’t really have an answer for this. I think it would probably be better to allow some supervised use of recovery-promoting drugs, while recognising that this wouldn’t stop people going outside the rules. The idea, as with drug policy in general, would be to focus on harm minimisation.

Hopefully, with limited drug use permitted, the additional benefits of unauthorised drug use would be small enough that the deterrent effect of penalties would be enhanced. On the other hand, I expect that if some drug use were legal, detecting cheating would become harder. Any thoughts?

43 thoughts on “Drug cheats

  1. @Jack Strocchi

    Obviously you are assuming that the boundaries between personal and professional can be fairly easily circumscribed for someone of your political comittments. Maybe they can. It’s just that the fervour of your Left-liberal commitment will sometimes make that circle difficult to square when distinctions are not so clear.

    I’m happy to clarify. I often self-describe as a left-libertarian. I’m strongly in favour of individual rights and personal space, wherever no serious collective action problem arises.

    Save as entertainment, I see no warrant for elite sport. If we aren’t drug-testing actors, I see no reason to drug test sports folk.

    The idea that there’s a bona fide job watching people naked folk at close quarters urinating into a vial does strike me as one of the more absurd features of contemporary life. That the state should be supporting that seems more curious still.

  2. @Fran Barlow
    Just googled Goldman’s dilemma – an interesting survey:

    “Bob Goldman began asking elite athletes in the 1980s whether they would take a drug that guaranteed them a gold medal but would also kill them within five years. More than half of the athletes said yes. When he repeated the survey biannually for the next decade, the results were always the same. About half of the athletes were quite ready to take the bargain.”

    Do you know if they tested for differences in answers from those athletes who had children?

    Goldman’s dilemma does not support your points.

    Drug taking is fraud on those who fund and organise sporting events, be it professional or not. Athletes enter conditional on promising to comply with the rules.

    Sports drug agencies act to prevent fraud on those sporting rules, including winning prizes through deception, as well as for public health reasons about use of controlled drugs. that is why sports drug takers are known as drug cheats.

    Sports associations that are employers of athletes have a health and safety duties to their employees.

    the suppression of dangerous drugs in the workplace is the statutory and contractual duty of every employer. the hazard can be to the employee or to others. voluntary employee assumption of risks does not get employers far as a defence against prosecutions under H&S law.

  3. Fran Barlow @ #23 said:

    Save as entertainment, I see no warrant for elite sport. If we aren’t drug-testing actors, I see no reason to drug test sports folk.

    Your analogy is close, but no cigar.

    We don’t, as a rule, bet on the outcome of artistic performances.
    Most of which are not competitive and not amenable to scientific control through pharmaceuticals.

    We do, quite often, bet on the outcome of athletic performances.
    Many of which are close-run competitive things, which can be materially affected by drug usage.

    Athletics, being a competitive money-making business, thereby overlaps the boundaries between personal and professional. And should therefore be subject to regulation on standard liberal grounds, prevention of fraud etc. Plus the usual ones of prevention of bodily harm.

    More generally I find your attempt to combine hard Leftism with vigorous libertarianism pretty implausible. Lets allow that you can be a libertarian whilst strictly applying gun control (although I think this does violence to the term “libertarian”, at least as far as law-abiding gun users are concerned.)

    You still have huge problems going the other way, trying to reconcile Leftism with libertarianism, say in the area of drug prohibition. Its perfectly obvious that drug prohibition improves the position of the lower-status (battered wives, indigenes, homosexuals, down-and-out working men and so on) and is therefore a Left-wing policy. (The Temperance movement were in no doubt about this, as are the modern day paternalists among indigenous policy reformers.)

    Its also self-evident that drug prohibition is anti-libertarian.

    So you cannot reconcile fervent Leftism and a genuine libertarian with any kind of out-comes based social policy.

    Consider yourself wedged!

  4. @Fran Barlow
    If, as you say, the public don’t care if athletes are drug-tainted, who do they end the careers in disgrace and lose amany of all of their endorsements? No one wants to buy a product endorsed by a sports drug cheat.

    On actors, you say: “If we aren’t drug-testing actors, I see no reason to drug test sports folk.”

    Film-makers buy cast insurance:
    • Cast Insurance provides coverage for additional expenses if an insured actor cannot begin, continue or complete their duties in a production as a result of death, injury or sickness.
    • Insured persons are initially covered for accident only, until such time as they are medically examined and complete a medical questionnaire.

    See page 130 of The Complete Film Production Handbook by Eve Light Honthaner on google books.

    If cast insurers suspect drug problems, insurance premiums go up, baby-sitters might have to be hired or there can even be a requirement for daily drug tests!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! See page 127 of the Guerilla film makers Handbook By Genevieve Jolliffe, Chris Jones on google books.

    Some big stars must cast without insurance if they recently left rehab. Eg. Robert Downey Jr. for the singing detective in 2002. Mel Gibson was the understanding producer.

  5. @Jack Strocchi

    We don’t, as a rule, bet on the outcome of artistic performances

    Relevance? Bets are not enforceable at law and even if they were, the prospect for cheating ought to be contemplated.

    And should therefore be subject to regulation on standard liberal grounds, prevention of fraud etc.

    Nope … I don’t care about fraud in sports. It’s entertainment.

    Its perfectly obvious that drug prohibition improves the position of the lower-status (battered wives, indigenes, homosexuals, down-and-out working men and so on) and is therefore a Left-wing policy.

    Even though drug prohibition results in massively increased imprisonment, failure to get treatment by users etc mostly by the disadvantaged? It may be “obvious” to you, but this is a parallel universe you are in, Jack

    The Temperance movement …

    was a rightwing christian movement …

    Implausible attack, Jack.

  6. @Jim Rose

    If, as you say, the public don’t care if athletes are drug-tainted, who do they end the careers in disgrace and lose amany of all of their endorsements? No one wants to buy a product endorsed by a sports drug cheat.

    Because they found out and their delusion was shattered. Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue …

    I know when at seven I found out ninjas weren’t magical I could never watch the samurai again …

  7. As my Dad would have said JQ, “well it all depends”. To which I would have said “on what”?

    In this case it all depends on what is to be gained.

    If you are a lawyer in a difficult case you might seek advice from colleagues. This is fully consistent with what is expected of a professional at work. If a law student on the other hand seeks advice from another in an examination then this is called cheating. Both situations are contests, each with a different purpose.

    In the case of the “run”, if you were competing to compare or test your performance against others in your class then your knee improving performance enhancing drug might have been cheating, whereas using foot powder for tinea may not be. In the case of an all in fun run, you are only competing against yourself. Do you feel as though you cheated against yourself, or would you have felt more cheated by the loss of fun by staying home on the couch?

  8. @Jack Strocchi

    Upon reflection, Jack, it seems to me that I owe you an apology. It is not the case that my answer was wrong. Rather, it was grossly inadequate.

    In my haste to dismiss your claim, I avoided the more compelling reason that drives me to reject your claim.

    In the end, I am not really that much interested in whether, on balance, it is somewhat in favour of the immediate interest to those of plebeian social location to be coerced by the state into “not hitting themselves” with mood-altering drugs.

    Capitalism winks at the destruction of all individual humanity — that of oppressor and oppressed alike. In the oppressor, it engenders hatred, disgust, fear and indifference to suffering. In the oppressed it engenders passivity, alienation and anomie. Whether someone from either group will survive or be destroyed and if so, in what ways, none can say.

    Yet it is not the duty of communists to run after the working masses with the cosh of the capitalist in one hand and an NA booklet in the other preaching moral salvation. Not at all. It is our duty to have the workers recognise in capitalism the instrument of ther social and cultural dispossession and to locate their acquisition of their full humanity in the struggle for its overthrow, and the institution of inclusive governance on a world scale.

    That way lies the path to the relief of the working people from the harms of capitalism, rather than the maild fist of the capitalist state.

  9. Its hard to see where you propose drawing the line, could you examples of drugs which you would remove from the banned list, and you would leave banned?

    Incidentally I’m a little doubtful your race day ibuprofen is performance enhancing at least not more than a placebo – although there is no shortage of runner who believe otherwise.

  10. John,

    Your last point reminds me of the controversy on the use of beta blockers in the marksmanship sports. (Even Golf!) See the following article in The Atlantic:


    The urban legand has it that when it became evident that these drugs improved perfromance, the ISSF ,(actually it was the UIT in those days), made it requirement for anyone using Beta Blockers to have a medical certificate that the drug was necessary for their long term health. At the next World Championships, (or Olympics depending on which urban legand you choose to follow), all the finalists were using Beta Blockers and had the appropriate medical certificate despite most being under the age of 30. So the drugs were banned outright despite the risk to the health of genuine users. See the following URL for an example:


    The Alantic article’s position is: Given the drug is necessary for the health of a significant number of middle aged and elderly competitors and it has no signifcant side effects, it makes sense to allow anyone who wants to use the drug to use it and not risk the health of genuine users by banning it!

  11. My recent experience has shown me that drug free I can ignore enough pain while jogging to give myself a semi-chronic ankle injury. Then again, I’ve never had a knee injury and ankle pain may be kid stuff to knee pain.

    Serious drug cheating has made competitive sport so dishonest that all professional sport without exception is now morally bankrupt and socially worthless. Boycott it. Don’t give it a dollar. That’s my stance.

  12. @Ikonoclast
    In one event I ran down a hill which was mainly loose, bare soil, so to avoid slipping my fellow team-mates and I ran sideways, if you can picture it, down the slope. The next day my knee would simply lock when in the straight leg position – and hurt like hell. Was barely able to walk, and certainly running was out of the question because of the locking of the knee, assuming the pain was bearable.

  13. Donald Oats, it is part of Grenville Dietrich folklore that my team, Central District, who had tried to recruit him themselves, is alleged to have encouraged Grenville to get blotto the night before that match which is, of course, a slur- CD would have known that Grenville functioned best on a full tank, even though his lifestyle eventually cut short a likely stellar career.
    I see Fran Barlow is having a lot of fun with this thread, but if I find a flaw in her reasoning, it’s with the possible exploitation of younger people thru their inculcation into something self destructive, for illusory reasons.
    JQ, keep it for a bit more, but if your knees are like mine you may eventually find it more profitable to change things down to to a good long walk with the dog.

  14. From a biological perspective, sporting prowess is a fitness indicator, that is, the winners represent a better mate choice. This may not actually be true in each specific instance – ask an AFL wife – we intuit it from our biological programming which has been formed over millions of years. Loosely, it is statistically correct over the period of our evolutionary memory.

    A competitor may have a narrative about wanting to win, and a spectator may have a narrative about the qualities of a particular winner, but these stories would just sound foolish without the more fundamental biological mechanisms underlying them.

    One key feature of fitness indicators is that they must have a real biological cost that cannot be faked. Consider the the peacock: it must spend a lot of time preening it’s tail, the tail makes it easier to predate, and so on, but the bird with the biggest tail with the brightest eyes gets the peahens. If peacock were able to purchase fake sick-on eyes and tail extensions at negligible cost, the tail would be rendered useless as a fitness indicator. It would still attract peahens for a time, but eventually tail-attraction would evolve out of peahens, since it picks duds, and useless big tails would evolve out of peacocks when they no longer attract peahens but still attract bird eaters. Something else, perhaps long beaks, could take over as the fitness indicator. Maybe male peacock would have to duke it out, like a lot of other species do.

    However, if peahens were smart enough to detect fake tails, the genuine tail would still work. Peahens probably aren’t, but we just might be.

    This is analogous to what’s going on with drugs and sport. We recognise that sport is a kind of fitness indicator, but we know that we must guard against fakery. Performance-enhancing drugs may produce the requisite sporting result, but our revulsion with them – as spectators – indicates that we want the performance be natural, arising from qualities of physique, mental skills, and the ability to persist through the training schedule, things that we might call the “real” qualities of the competitors.

    As performers, the equation is a little different: provided the target audience don’t realise you’re faking it, it’s ok. But you wouldn’t tell them. Athletes generally deny taking drugs, and they continue to deny it after retirement when it has ceased to matter career-wise: we would still feel revulsion, and they would feel shamed.

    The equation for the rentseekers sports administrators is different again. If their code becomes known for drug-based fakery it looses it’s “sexual” relevance – it is no longer a fitness indicator. So administrators generally want to stop drug use, or, failing that, cover it up, and if that fails, have a program or two in place that indicate you’re dealing with it so it can’t be a big problem. I’m being a little cynical here, administrators are spectators too, so will want to eliminate drug use to make the game “real”.

    Of course, all this describes some basic drivers; it doesn’t really tell you what’s right!

  15. @Ikonoclast
    Ikono = my recent experience is that with a single panadol on board for a heavy cold, and a cuppacino – I can ignore the pain of doing 120 laps of a twenty five metre pool .

    This is a good thing! I used to know a swimmer who took catovit and then swam 5ks in a single session (vitamin tablet for old people) – she used to swear by it and one day she gave me one and lo and behold I did a 5 k session as well painlessly.

    I think it was taken off the market long ago. It was just too effective.

    I wouldnt run out to get the newspapers – I hate running – you get very sweaty!. I congratulate the Prof nonetheless…its damned hard work to pull out a respectable (pretty impressive) time like that for 10 ks run – but each to his own. I can only swim about 2.6 to 2.8 ks (maybe 3 if I didnt stop at a push) in the time he ran 10ks.

    Whereas if I didnt have that panadol and cuppacino when I had a cold – I might feel “what am I doing here? This really hurts… especially when I feel bad from a cold.”

    Does that make me a drug cheat or did it make me do the exercise which might have done more good than taking some caffeine and a panadol did bad?

    Hard call. I think the marginal benefits of the exercise may be greater than the marginal costs of some pharmaceutical assistance, but as usual its a question of degree isnt it?.

    Id take the Ibubrufen and not worry about it and anything else that makes it bearable except anything like those drugs that are systemically addictive eg steroids

    (muscle and joint strain is a bit different if you are running than swimming – there is not too much can go wrong to joints in the water – except shoulders and only after you get old – sore knees and pounding pavements and panadols may not be inherently wise – even though the panadol is fairly innocuous – it can mask warning signals?).

    Depends a lot on the drug and the nature of the exercise.

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