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I think it's a questions of acceptance. It's accepted that on the sidelines in pro football players and taking oxygen to advance recovery. Scene: NYC Marathon. The lead pack not only grab their energy drinks at the water stops, but they take a hit of oxygen, like football players. People would be outraged, right?


Lasik has been used by golfers to get better than 20:20 vision, so the "restoring to normal" argument does not work.

The war on some molecules is the best explanation.

Consider that sports that are inherently damaging like boxing are not illegal. The long term effects of brain impacts is visible in autopsies and brain scans.

More than one neurologist is on record that children should not be hitting soccer balls with their heads.

Salmon Sample

I believe the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has a rather exhaustive set of guidelines relating to performance-enhancing drugs, and these are, by and large, accepted as strictures throughout the sporting world.

There again, these are 'guidelines,' and thus, as such, national sports associations such as Major League Baseball (MLB), or the Spanish Higher Sports Council (CSD) have autonomy to deal with any misdemeanors — or not, as the case may be — in-house.

Christopher Horn

Was thinking about this debate during the British Open this weekend, the first "Tiger-less" slam on the PGA Tour.

As you know, Tiger Woods has been shelved for the rest of the golf season due to a stress fracture and torn ligaments in his right (?) leg. It is expected that he will return next spring.

As you also know, the PGA Tour isn't the same without him, so of course this weekend's coverage was interspersed with Tiger factoids, many of which are extremely impressive.

1) Tiger Woods has been in the top 10 of majors about as often as Jack Nicklaus (2/3 of the time), though Tiger converts 50% of his top 10s into wins, where Jack converted only 25%.

2) Tiger Woods has already, at age 32, been leading after Saturday in more major championships than any other golfer in history (14).

If, heaven forbid, Tiger's rehab should be unsuccessful and he not be able to play again, the debate will be on regarding who is the greatest golfer ever: Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus?

In that unfortunate circumstance, Jack's fans would have career stats on their side, though Tiger's fans would have the benefit of better "apples-to-apples" accomplishments.

Taking a step back, this raises two important questions bearing directly on the discussion in this thread:

1) If we conclude that Tiger is the best ever, irrespective of whether he plays again (my view, FWIW), we are implicitly saying that Tiger possesses a series of traits/skills that result in "best ever" status, including perhaps unparalleled commitment, grit, hard work, talent, etc., etc, etc...you could probably find a better list at a golf website than here.

2) Whatever those traits, they have at best a secondary relationship with the health of his knee.

Which brings the following conclusion:

There certainly is a monumental difference between taking a pill or injection that might deliver those traits that made Tiger the greatest golfer ever, and...

...a surgery to provide you with Tiger's (successfully, we hope) reconstructed knee.


While I think that this debate is exactly what Mr. Gladwell would hope to have happen at the respective legislative bodies, I believe a number of the arguments posed as to the "why?" of steroid illegality have significant holes in them.
First the health argument. Intuitively, this argument makes sense to me; however, as has been pointed out by a number of others, we often glorify athletes who put their health at risk for the sake of victory. Furthermore, we promote a number of sports that inherently put the athlete at risk for long-term health issues (think about retired boxers and retired offensive linemen in football). I'm not sure the logic that "athletics should not promote practices with potentially harmful long-term effects" really holds up (granted, maybe baseball officials make the case that my counterargument doesn't hold water in their sport where there seems to be less inherent risk for health issues).
Second, the fairness argument. I think Mr. Gladwell brings up a very important question in his blog about defining why steroids is different from Lasik surgery. And while there have been a number of well thought-out suggestions, I think that a few respondents have a misconception about how steroids actually work. It is not as if these substances somehow magically place slabs of muscle onto athlete's frames just by popping pills or injecting themselves. The steroids essentially act as a recovery agent, allowing the athlete to better partition nutrients to the appropriate tissues (it's the same reason why they help athletes recovering from injury). The reason this helps is because athletes can then recover quicker from prior training sessions, allowing for more frequent sessions and higher volumes of training (which would otherwise not be possible because the athlete would be unable to recover from the training). Bottom line, it doesn't take any of the hard work out of the equation. So long as the steroid policy is the same for every athlete, would it not seem fair to let athletes who want to train more and harder do so?
I am not 100% committed to the idea that steroids should be allowed and that there is no difference between performance-enhancing drugs and seemingly more innocuous treatments like Lasik. In fact, in some ways I'd like to hear an argument to convince me otherwise because the administrative/practical hassles of enforcing a steroid-friendly policy sure do seem pretty daunting. Someone convince me!

Christopher Horn

JB - your argument about the method of action of steroids is interesting, and it has prompted yet another way to think about the "performance-enhancing" difference between steroids and lasik.

First, a digression. Suppose that you were a technically-adept person, such that you had the ability to compile the nuts, bolts, casing, a screen, the CPU and all the software to make a wireless handheld convergent device. Suppose further that you got an agreement with Best Buy to sell your product as "JB's handheld".

Nothing wrong with that, yes?

Now suppose instead you went to Best Buy and sold your product as a "Blackberry", including 'borrowing' the branding, trade dress, etc trademarked by Research in Motion.

Something wrong with that, yes?

"JBs hand-held" is fine, since it involves utilization of commodity-type products to put together your own version of a handheld and attempting to compete in the marketplace. However, you can't make a "Blackberry", since that is a trademarked brand. That part is straightforward.

The sports application isn't quite as simple, but its probably close enough. Lasik or other 20/20-vision replacing activities are effectively commodities, widely available to athletes of all talent-levels, through interventions ranging from spectacles to contacts to Lasik, etc.

The particular constellation of traits and skills that makes Tiger "Tiger" can be thought of like a trademark, the result (like RIM's Blackberry) of years of training and development. To take a pill or injection that replicates Tiger's "trademarked" skills is as offensive to reason as you selling your convergent device as a Blackberry.

Admittedly this comparison isn't perfect. Some of Tiger's constellation of skills are biological factors arising from lucky birth. However, when we speak of an athlete's greatness, we routinely say things like "Ted Williams' *trademark* ability to see where the ball hits the bat" or "Wayne Gretzky's *trademark* puck passing skills".

To my knowledge, no sports commentator anywhere has ever spoken of a player's "Trademark 20/20 vision".

Like I said - not perfect - but a pretty good way to think about the difference between 'commodity' interventions such as surgically-repaired knees and 'trademark' interventions such as a pill or injection that replicates one such as Tiger's skills.


I'm late to the party, as usual, but I'll add my two bits worth.

In professional bicycling, painkillers stronger than aspirin (including ibuprofen) are banned during multi-day stage races, as suffering is expected and intrinsic to the sport, and to remove a significant amount of suffering is seen as removing one of the selections the event makes.

Further, EPO and it's kin are banned - but so is racing with a hematocrit level of greater than 50%, unless a pre-existing medical condition can be proven. Why? Higher hematocrit levels are known to be dangerous to the riders - riders have had died due to excessively high hematocrit levels.

Theraputic Use Exemptions are permitted for a variety of things, some would say too many, others would say not enough. Asthma inhalers are common - should they be? Some say that if you can't race because of asthma then you shouldn't race, while others say that if it prevents a rare, but potentially fatal conditions, its use is acceptable.

In addition to the potential health consequences of steroids, etc, in both the using athletes and "the children", there the group of non-using athletes who are potentially affected - people who can't make it to big leagues because some older athlete is using steroids to continue their career well past it's normal expiration date. Who wins, who loses?

Lastly, unless you remove all prohibitions against performance enhancing methods in sports, you will have the system we have now - there will be somewhat arbitrary limits placed on methods as they become known.

There will be people who will exceed these limits if they feel they will benefit them, their career, their team, their country, whatever. Some will be willing to take the pill and shorten their lives to succeed, and some won't knowingly be given the choice, but will end up with the pill, anyway.

Any treatment carries some risk to the user. Every user will accept a different risk/reward level. It's not up to the individual to define what is acceptable, however. Organized sports place limits on the risk/reward ratio - no face masking in football, batters hit by pitches get a free base, etc. Why should therapies be any different?


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Excellent points made here. The media and the general public are simply very ignorant about the training, rehab, pre-hab, nutrition, etc. that elite athletes use in order to achieve success, or at least give themselves a chance to do so. I discussed some similar point in my on blog I linked to.

Some of you may be interested in it.


For some people, doing what they do by their own strength without additives keeps them happy. This same principle gives the spectators the chance to see who's stronger, not whose drug box is larger.

If you prefer people to take drugs, fine, create another league, call it "Anything goes" and let them go at it.

But then keep the other, clean, league both for sportsmen and spectators to enjoy. I believe there will be interested parties for both of the leagues.

P.S. Yeah, old post commenting syndrome.

Sonny Thirstynn

most of the performance enhancers banned by pro sports in America are also illegal in America (anabolic steroids, amphetamines and hgh) whereas legal medicines/surgery (painkillers, Lasik eye surgery) are typically allowed unless you compete in an international regulated endurance sport like running and cycling, then everything is banned

adam ferrier

Anyone who wants to take performancing enhancing drugs should be allowed to do so....and as much as they want. Let them bulk themselves up to extreme proportions let them break all the records they want, and let's enjoy the spectical when they run into each other and explode.

If the argument for not being allowed to take performance enhancing drugs is around 'harm' - then who is to say a person who literally explodes on the sporting field after 5 years of happiness breaking all the worlds records is more worse off than if he was an average athlete living without success for 30 more years.


I liked this discussion.. It made me ponder over this problem. Different aspects of it have been already examined. So many aspects, opinions, cases, questions involved... such as business and sport, death of great and not great sportsmen, the essense of sport and competition itself and so on and so forth.. Do you believe there will ever be the answers? Will the right solution for this problem be found? I don't know, I doubt it. Too much money is involved.


I agree (11 months later) with many of the people here who have suggested that the difference lies in the impact on personal health. It is amazing to see how quickly the media/government turns on a dime at the mention of a health concern. If drugs like herion and cocaine didn't have such an adverse effect on human health, they would be far more likely to be legalized, and embraced by society. I believe this is the primary distinction between legal and illegal drugs; however, having said this I'm now flummoxed by the fact that cigarettes and alcohol are still legal, when the long-term effects of these drugs have been scientifically proven to be harmful. The only reason I can come up with is that tobacco companies have been around and have been accepted as a part of society for such a long time that they have been branded into our cultural consciousness. Anyway, just my 2 cents (11 months late). Nice blog!

Lethe Bashar

For anyone interested in these questions, the documentary "Bigger, Faster, Stronger," does a marvelous job at uncovering the nuances of the steriod question. It seems so obvious to me that our rejection of certain performancing enhancing drugs over others is a social construction, influenced by the media and the government bans and laws. Scientifically, the research against the long-term use of steriods is inconclusive. In an essay on my blog, I discuss other performance enhancing drugs such as Provigil and ask why these drugs are accepted by the government and the military even though the long-term side effects are equally inconclusive. What we have been told about anabolic steroids--that they should be in the same category as street drugs, that the side effects are irreversible--is a blatant lie.

Cam Beck

Your comparison between Lasik and Steroids is flawed (in fairness, it wasn't your analogy, but you did promote it). Once I explain how, I hope you'll take a moment to clarify, because I suspect you can make a similar point in a different way.

In your criticism of the sports establishment, you must suppose two circumstances are alike.

1. The sports establishment is on a witchhunt against players who use performance-enhancing drugs like steroids and HGH.

2. Thus, to be consistent, they must also be on a witchhunt against players who elect to have Lasik surgery or take prescribed pain killers (or else they must abandon their witchhunt against those who take performance-enhancing drugs)

However, the two circumstances are wildly different, because those substances you mentioned are banned by law. The blame, then, lies with the lawmakers, not those who wish to keep their respective sports establishments free of congressional punitive action or criminal (or civil) negligence.

You're right that the question is not adequately addressed by most people who see nothing at all wrong with banning the substances, but it seems to me that you're off target by blaming the sports establishment in this particular instance.

Were those substances not illegal, what you said would be perfectly valid.

However, as others have mentioned, illegal substances are only the tip of the iceberg, and the sports establishments have not been entirely forthcoming in explaining why they ban other, legal substances or convincing us of the credibility of their testing methodologies.

That said, in the case of the NFL and MLB and other professional sports organizations in the U.S., these are voluntary associations and may set the rules (within the law) for membership.

They can ban caffeine if they want.

Players are bound by contractual law to abide by the rules, end their membership to pursue other talents, or else they may have their memberships ended involuntarily for breach of contract.


I think steroid use relates in a way to the way that we probably won't be seeing so many records broken. I guess it takes a certain amount of time for people to run their course of records. I think that steroid use stretches that time out where we can still see records being broken for alittle while longer... but at some point the last record will be the last record. I don't think anyone likes that... I often think of Babe Ruth, I am sure Babe Ruth would have taken any performance drug he could have gotten his hands on, especially steroids, and would I care, no.

I really think that people have the right to take those drugs... but I don't think that they are necessarily any good for our species.


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As I have only just discovered your website and therefore this blog I hope you permit me to rekindle an old thread.

I also have some experience in this industry having worked as a biochemist/physiologist/coach with elite athletes for some time before shifting focus.

There seems to be an overwhelming focus on the ethical distinction between certain types of behaviour that provide what is considered to be an "unfair advantage" and those behaviours that merely rectify a genuine medical disadvantage.

This reminds me of the debate toward the end of the 1940's regarding whether or not structured training should be allowed for olympic athletes. After, all this was the original motivation for limiting the olympics to amateurs from professional backgrounds as those in manual trades were considered to have an unfair advantage.

Let's inject some pysiological reality from a more global context:

1. I defy any unassisted human being to ride a bike for 16 days at an average of 42km/hour over both the Alps and the Pyreneese
2. I defy any unassisted human being to run 100m in less than 9.8 seconds
3. I defy any unassisted human being to lift an olympic total of almost 5 times their body weight

Therefore the fact that we continue to have these debates among members of the public is incredible to me.

If you are considering using performance enhancing drugs to provide you with a competitive advantage you are too late. Performance enhancing drugs are "pay to play" in almost every field of serious sporting endeavour. In fact if you can catch an elite athlete in a quiet moment they will tell you if you took drugs out of the equation the same people would win, just 25% slower. If you are relying on organised sporting bodies like the IOC, ICF or the NFL to "stamp out drug use" good luck. If you are looking for some sort of huge conspiracy whereby young athletes are co-opted into abandoning their ethics in favour of a code of silence with secret handshakes, get a grip.

As Chomsky has said "who needs conspiracies when we have the english language". The truth is, we love a good story and stories can be a powerful cognitive filter (just look at the "war on terror"). Nobody wants to go to an Olympic final to watch guys run 10.1. So, just follow the incentives and ethical fading (Darley and Tenbrunsel) will do the rest.

By the way, going back to where I started the jury is still out on whether elite training is itself bad for your health. Just look at all the former professional athletes who are now suffering sudden heart failure and aneurisms in their 40's.

PS just saw one of your presentations on TED...Awesome!


It's legal for people to kill themselves slowly with alcohol and cigarettes. I would be arrested and charged if I were to attempt to interfere with that legal right. Why should I care if people harm themselves with illicit drugs? Are we worried that they might make huge sums of money while they harm themselves?

As an alternative to caring what some professional athlete does, why don't all of us go out and play a game of softball or tag football and turn off the damn television.


It isn't about right and wrong, or what the league is comfortable with. It's about protecting the records. When Maris broke Ruths record, no one wanted to give it to him, since he needed more games to do it. Aaron's life was on the line as he chased Babe. The history of baseball is more closely tied to its stats than any of the other sports, and that's why we don't see the outcry when an NFL player gets busted.

It doesn't matter that Aaron played in a time when "greenies" were the norm, or Ruth played in a segregated league. The numbers we grew up with, 61, 755, are all that baseball wants to protect. When middle relievers or average ball players get caught, its not a big deal. Only when someone is approaching those milestones, or in Clemens' case, all-time greatness, does steroid use bother anyone.

The media, who sold us the summer of 98, are trying to make a time on both sides of this. I don't believe that the average fans care all that much to be honest. No more than NFL fans, but the media covers the two completely differently.

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