Ethics of Athletes Using Performance Enhancing Drugs

Drug testing began as an intervention to remove any unfair advantage that an athlete who uses drugs might have. This reason was especially valid for drugs such as central nervous system (CNS) stimulants and anabolic steroids–two groups of drugs that are believed to improve physical performance and endurance. The banning of analgesics, which can mask the pain of an injury and can lead to more serious injury, was motivated by a desire to protect athletes from the potentially dangerous drug side effects. It seems that stimulants and steroids have even more serious side effects than pain killers, so nobody should use them as enhancement drugs. There are legitimate reasons for the use of steroids, but not for sports. Using them for sports is not just unfair, but it is foolish and gives a poor example as an athlete for our youth. After all, no matter how much pride we take in our Olympic athletes, it is not just about winning. It is about fair and ethical competition, and in my mind, things like drug use take some of the pleasure out of the competition. Sports are supposed to be fun, but the big business aspects and all the money the successful athletes can make have made people do things they should not do. This includes taking performance-enhancing drugs, which introduce unfair synthetic advantages, and may totally change the character of athletic competition. It sends the wrong message to our youth and poses a severe danger to our athletes at all levels.

Anabolic steroids are used by some athletes in sports that require strength and endurance because they promote the growth of skeletal muscle. This can provide users with a possibly unfair advantage, which is simply unsportsmanlike behavior. These sports are supposed to test the natural ability of athletes, not the ability of science to augment athletic prowess. Even if these drugs were benign, they should not be used. These athletes are supposed to be the best that each country can produce, and that means they must be more than just great athletes. They must also be great people. Their attitudes should represent what we believe about sports and reflect the value system of our people. Patrick Laure, the Doping specialist of the French Ministry of Youth and Sports, calls the problem one of attitude: policing will not change it. “Among riders, ‘there is a small group of cheats’ who are at the heart of the doping, International Cycling Union (ICU) president Hein Verbruggen told the court last week. ‘Then there is a much bigger group of riders who are forced to follow suit. Otherwise, they feel at a disadvantage; a third group don’t take drugs, but stuff themselves with authorized medicine; and a smaller, fourth group takes nothing at all.'” (Ford 2000) With the many new drugs being created every day, some are almost undetectable. (Kondro 2003).

The philosophical considerations behind the rationale for drug usage in an athletic context are based on the violations of legal rules and the nature of the sport itself. Sport is defined as an activity governed by the rules and physical capabilities of competitors. The aim of the sport is to determine the most strong and psychically developed competitor and also who is most determined and motivated. The use of these drugs violates these rules and prevents fair competition and rivalry (Voy and Deeter 35). Using steroids in Sports can be compared with cheating. There is no denying that the use of any performance-enhancing drug is contrary to the basic spirit and intent of athletic competition; it distorts the very nature of the sport. The competition should be decided on the basis of who has done the best job of perfecting and utilizing his or her natural abilities, not on the basis of who has the best pharmacist. If the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports is so widespread, and other athletes feel they must use them to compete successfully, why not drop the prohibition against these drugs and let everyone use them? (Mottram 32). That would certainly eliminate the need for testing, with all of its attendant problems and costs, but it would not guarantee that everyone would be on an equal footing again in competition.

Dropping the ban on performance-enhancing drugs in sport would entail a major revision of the nature of athletic competition. The athletic competition traditionally has been between individuals or groups of individuals based on the development and skillful use of their bodies and their natural abilities. It is known that drugs such as anabolic steroids react differently in different bodies. Some individuals may gain a great deal of strength from the use of the drugs, while others may gain very little (Mottram 57). Therefore, the use of these substances by all athletes would introduce a new element into sport: the innate ability of the body to respond to the drugs. This would not be an element that has anything to do with sports or talent but with accidental genetic differences among a group that is already physically elite. If we allowed this change, then there would be many people who would try these drugs in the hope that they would be among the few for whom it would create an advantage. So, another basic argument for the continued ban of these substances is that sport should be a competition between individuals, based on the development and utilization of their natural physical and mental skills; it should not be reduced to an assessment of the ability of their bodies to benefit from the ingestion of drugs (Voy and Deeter 71). There is an athlete who will be permitted to enter the Olympic competition with an artificial leg this year. I am not certain that I agree with this either. The artificial leg may actually represent an unfair artificial advantage. If he wins, will other athletes seek prosthetic advantages? Could surgery improve the strength of ankles and Achilles tendons? I am not sure even this should be allowed. It would result in many more people possibly damaging their bodies in the pursuit of fame and fortune, and it would become all about the money, as it is dangerously close to doing now.

There are many who are either in favor of dropping the bans because they believe that people should not be protected from themselves or because they believe we cannot win this one. “Heck, players, even if most were clean, probably would vote for a “Just Say Yes” drug policy. No more threats of suspensions. There would be more.250 hitters who’d risk their health to boom a few more taters. Yeah, let the guys with the best pharmacists drive the Rolls-Royces,” says Sandy Grady in USA Today. He cites these reasons as to why he would never vote in that direction:

  • You’ll never know what’s real or fake if you suspect a big percentage of players is on the juice. Spectator sports are built on the belief that the games aren’t rigged. Otherwise, switch the dial to pro wrestling.
  • The prodrug plague leaches down to high school and college players. Coaches say that’s already happening. Do you think a 180-pound kid lineman won’t be tempted to try the same chemicals as Joe Superstar?
  • Athletes who think they’re immortal are playing Russian roulette with their health by toying with drugs. Experts warn of heart disease and tumors. Ask the friends of former NFL stud Lyle Alzado, who blamed his death from cancer at 43 on steroids. (Grady 2003).

The most important reason to ban drug use is the dangers these drugs pose to our athletes. It is becoming clear that some of the more dangerous long-term side effects of anabolic steroid use include psychoses, kidney dysfunction, liver disease, including cancer, and alterations in serum lipid profiles that indicate an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attacks. In recent years there has been a small but growing number of documented deaths of young athletes attributed to anabolic steroid use, primarily among powerlifters and body-builders, the sports that have the longest history of steroid use (Voy and Deeter 77). Considerations of the long-term health and safety of the athlete, therefore, are important reasons for continuing the ban on the use of these substances. There is certainly enough danger in the competitions themselves without increasing it by the use of drugs. Again it is a matter of where we should draw the line. Mostly we draw the line by determining what is necessary and what is unnecessary danger. That is why we require athletes to wear supports and protective gear, such as helmets and gloves. Sports are more fun when they are safe. There is no glory in the destruction of a young, healthy body in the name of sport.

The use of steroids triggers a number of other potentially serious adverse effects such as hepatic carcinoma, impotence, and jaundice. Steroids are defined as a terpenoid lipid characterized by a carbon skeleton” (Voy and Deeter 23). Currently, the IOC bans substances into five categories: psychomotor stimulants, sympathomimetic amines, miscellaneous CNS stimulants, narcotic analgesics, and anabolic steroids. In addition, blood doping and the use of growth hormones (both discussed below) are also prohibited. The most recent practice of “blood doping,” or “blood boosting,” has been the subject of debate. The “boosted” number of red blood cells increases the competitors’ oxygen supply. Several studies have indicated that boosting can improve the performance of trained athletes, although the improvement appears to be a slight one (Mottram 82) and temporary. Growth hormone is a powerful anabolic substance that affects all body systems and plays an important role in muscle growth. It is released from the anterior pituitary gland in response to a variety of stimuli, including exercise, sleep, stress, and the administration of a variety of drugs and amino acids. Growth hormone administration to normal animals leads to muscle hypertrophy, but this muscular growth is not accompanied by increased strength. Growth hormone excess leads to acromegaly, a disease with a high risk of death, and it includes a myopathy in which muscles appear larger but are functionally weaker. These are just a few possibilities that are known. Nobody knows what the long-term use of some of these drugs will do yet, though there are some athletes who are facing these results now who are discovering some very unhappy consequences.

Attempts to control drug use by athletes through drug testing and education have increased considerably in recent years, as has the amount of public attention to the use of drugs by athletes (Voy and Deeter 32). It is hoped that this helps to control the use of these drugs. Sadly, it is a powerful motivation when excelling in sports can lead to high monetary rewards and fame. If we could absolutely identify all drug use, then all athletes would comply. However, if one gets away with using drugs, then many more will try, and some will become debilitated or even die.

To enhance athletic performance, anabolic steroids must be taken over a long period of time (weeks or months), well before any competition. In contrast to psychomotor stimulants, anabolic steroids tend to stay in the body for relatively long periods, making their detection much less dependent on testing immediately after use. Among the milder side effects are acne, premature baldness, prostate enlargement and inflammation, increased aggressiveness, testicular atrophy, and reduced sperm production. In adolescents, the use of anabolic steroids causes premature closure of the growth centers of long bones (Mottram 81). Thus, such individuals will not be as tall as they would have been having they had not used the drug. In females, anabolic steroid use results in side effects such as masculinization, abnormal menstrual cycles, and irreversible changes such as excessive body and facial hair, enlargement of the clitoris, and deepening of the voice. All of these do permanent damage to the athlete, so anyone promoting the use of these drugs is guilty of promoting self-mutilation in others, a worse crime than cheating. Such people are partly responsible for the use of drugs as early as junior high school in our culture and for doing sport into a cut-throat competition, instead of what it should be: fun. Allowing artificial enhancements which actually may cause tremendous damaging long-term effects is simply sending the wrong message to our kids.

In sum, the use of steroids and other drugs in sport violates basic rules and aims of sport based on fair competition and the physical abilities of competitors. Certainly, an important reason not to drop the prohibitions against performance-enhancing drugs involves the long-term health and safety of the athletes. The use of anabolic steroids, particularly the extremely large dosages used by athletes, carries with it a great risk of a number of adverse side effects, ranging from mild to deadly. This is an unnecessary risk for our best athletes, and it promotes the use of these drugs at all other levels because it sends the wrong message to our kids that winning is the most important thing in sport. If we allowed the use of these drugs, then we would essentially be totally commercializing sport at the expense of our athletes. The message that this would send to our children is totally distorted, and if this kind of thing became popular, the nature of sport would be forever changed, and it would have terrible ramifications at all levels of sports competitions.

Works Cited

FORD, P., 2000. Tolerance of sports doping on trial in France. (Cover story). Christian Science Monitor, 92(242), pp. 1.

Grady, Sandy. 2003.” Just Say Yes to Pro Sports Drugs?” USA Today.

KONDRO, W., 2003. Athletes’ “designer steroid” leads to widening scandal. Lancet, 362(9394), pp. 1466-1466.

Mottram, D. 2003. Drugs in Sport. Routledge; 3 edition,

Voy, R., Deeter, K. D. 1991. Drugs, Sport, and Politics. Human Kinetics Publishers.

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