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Doping is against the true character of Sport

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Doping is against the true character of sport

By Kai Holm *
This article is reproduced with the kind permission of WADA (World Anti Doping Agency)

Top leaders from the world of sport met with government representatives from around the World at WADA's World Anti-Doping Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. The Conference endorsed a global World Anti-Doping Code that will govern the fight against doping in the future.

By why is this fight against doping so important that more than 1000 people including 120 journalists travelled to Copenhagen to set up these rules? Why is doping considered a mortal sin in sports? Why does the use of doping cause suspensions and public condemnation when the use of medicine and dietary supplements amongst the public has never been higher?

In fact, certain scientists claim that the condemnation of the use of doping in sport is out of proportion. They find it understandable that athletes have difficulties resisting the temptation of doping. The use of doping in sports is here to stay, they say, and they believe that sports will need to be less morally ambivalent and more realistic regarding doping.

They argue that this cannot be any different as long as athletes pursue optimization of their performances and as long as we live in a society where it is becoming more acceptable to take artificial short cuts. Is it not best for all of us if sports takes the heat for the use of doping, which is hardly a bigger crime than anything else that takes place today, they would say.

The character of sports

What these scientists have not understood is that sport has its own character, which is different from other kinds of cultural life. The justification of the existence of competitive sports is questioned by doping, which is why it is so important to fight it.

The special character of sport can be illustrated by the following example: Within music, literature and art it is the final result – the work – which is conclusive. In principle we do not care how the writer wrote his book or how the composer composed his music. We do not know – or care - if it took him a year or a week or if he had been taking drugs. But that is not the case with sport.

In competitive sports the process towards the final result is as crucial as the final result. Following the process is what fascinates us about sport. To hear the result of a football match is interesting but not enough for us. Immediately we want to know how it happened. Competitive sports would not survive if the results were just communicated or if the competitions took place without spectators and media coverage. In the other cultural areas the results stand alone. This is not the case within sports.


Important comparability

As the process towards the final result is so important in competitive sports, it is crucial that we are able to follow the competition that leads to the result. Competitive sports are built on a set of objective rules which means that everybody knows on what terms the competition takes place. Competitive sports are therefore also characterized by a high degree of transparency and comparability.

Everyone has the possibility of learning the rules of any sport and we are therefore capable of giving our own comments on a result. Other kinds of culture do not normally have objective rules. There are no rules to observe when you write a book or paint a picture. On the contrary it is sometimes considered preferable if an artist does not follow the standardized norms. If that took place in football the referee would award a free kick. And even though we may not agree to whether the free kick should have been allowed, we have an visible experience from which we can learn.

Doping, on the contrary, takes place beneath the surface. It is not just a violation of a rule but an attempt against the ambition of competitive sports of being open and transparent. It is for the same reason that some sports have special rules about how a bicycle or a boat must be constructed. Collusion is the same way as doping ruinous to all the premises that sport is built upon. For the same reason, the worst that a sport can be accused of is being compared to American TV-wrestling, where everything is agreed in beforehand. Competitive sport fascinates people because it is unpredictable. This is ruined if collusion or doping takes place and sports are reduced to a circus show.

A question of health

So doping is damaging to sport as it offends the rules which are made to protect the most crucial attraction: the transparent competition where nothing is planned beforehand. But if all the athletes used doping then sports would still appear open and transparent and keep its attraction value, one could say. So why not legalise doping? The answer is simple. If doping were legalised then all athletes would have to use it in order to compete successfully. The substantial health risk that is connected with the use of doping (in particular EPO, NESP, and steroids) would not be fair to induce on everyone who wants to be able to compete successfully.

The signal to young athletes is another problem. Elite sportsmen serve as role models for the youth in a way that we do not see in other parts of culture except, perhaps, in rock music. However, youth do not expect that you need to take drugs in order to be a good rock musician. On the other hand, the connection between performance and doping in sport is strong in the public perception. If doping were legalised it would send a signal to young people that it is all right to take drugs if you want to be a successful athlete.

I, too, believe that the hysteria about doping sometimes reaches inconceivable heights. However, there is a reason why sport reacts so strongly against doping. Maybe the critics should be pleased that somebody tries to hold on to the special character of sport instead of criticizing them for fighting a hopeless battle and being out of touch with the development of society. Who knows? Maybe it will have a positive effect on the use of medicine etc. in society in general, if we succeed in keeping competitive sport open and transparent.