Doping epidemic will persist as long as we expect athletes to be superhuman

Doping epidemic will persist as long as we expect athletes to be superhuman
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For me, like many, hearing “Hearts on Fire” stirs up images of “Rocky IV,” where Rocky must avenge the death of Apollo Creed by fighting the seemingly unstoppable Russian Ivan Drago. During an iconic training montage, Rocky’s rustic training style of running through snow, chopping down trees and climbing Siberian mountains is juxtaposed with Drago’s highly mechanized training in a sophisticated Russian laboratory. In this lab, Drago is not only injected with steroids but also regularly backlit with ominous red lighting — a reminder that the red scare is an ever-present danger to the American way of life.

I am not alone in growing up in a cultural mindset in which the United States fought for what was good and right with nothing but hard work and a can-do attitude while Russia was the bully who had to cheat to win. The recent World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) ruling to ban Russia from the 2020 Olympics is a perfect example of how that mindset is still prevalent today and drives reactionary policy to punish identified cheaters. 

Seeking an advantage over an opponent is likely as least as old as sport itself. For example, ancient Greeks used mushrooms and strychnine, among other things, to enhance performance during competition. More than two millennia later, we have an underground industry locked in an arms race dedicated to churning out new substances that defy physiological expectations and detection, promising athletes a chance at eternal glory.

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When the price is being banned from the very sport at which you wish to excel, who would take such a risk?

Goldman’s dilemma describes a study done among elite athletes that asked two questions: 

  • Would you take a performance enhancing drug if it guaranteed you would win an Olympic medal and you would not get caught?
  • Would you take a performance enhancing drug if it guaranteed you would win an Olympic medal, you would not be caught but you would die five years after taking the drug?

Ninety-eight percent of athletes responded “yes” to the first question, and over half said “yes” to the second question. Though more recent work has downgraded these percentages. 

So what is creating a pressure so intense that athletes would literally risk their lives for a gold medal? 

Outside of innate desire and competitive spirit, there are also economic and social factors that drive an athlete to strive to be the best of the best. World record-breaking performances lead to big name corporate sponsorships and becoming the pride of a nation. With these come an ever-growing fan base watching your every move in hopes of lightning striking twice, creating an unnatural pressure pushing athletes to seek unnatural assistance.

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Russia now joins an exclusive club infamous for doping, a club that boasts such organizations as Major League Baseball and the Tour de France. And one could easily argue that Russia would be under greater scrutiny for such practices given the expectations put in place by popular media, as explained above.

But these transgressors have more in common than just the use of performance enhancing drugs. All of them were also caught. If these cases and the Goldman’s dilemma are any indication, then doping is widespread throughout every sport and in every country. Were it not for whistleblowers bringing this misconduct to light, the doping practices would have likely continued under the radar, and likely do continue under the radar elsewhere.

So are harsh sanctions, like those recently handed out by the WADA, an effective deterrent for performance enhancing drug use? I highly doubt it. Olympic medals are just not enough. The popular demand for fantastic physical feats and fallen world records is heavily ingrained in American culture and elsewhere. And, yet, hypocritically, so is the belief that such feats should be accomplished through hard work alone. We want to see super speeds and super strength. We want to believe in real super heroes, but we don’t want to admit to the source of their super powers.

Modern sports are at a crossroads. Should we maintain the status quo, knowing that performance enhancing drug use is widespread while only occasionally punishing a handful of transgressors? Or should international agencies work to eliminate doping entirely? 

If doping practices were truly eliminated, and the chance for athletes to push their bodies past what we believed to be hard limits reduced, would we all still watch? Would we all still cheer? 

Until the culture surrounding sports and athletes changes to one that truly celebrates competition and camaraderie rather than supraphysiological performances, doping will continue to be a driving force in the Olympics and beyond.

Cara Ocobock is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. Her research focuses on how humans physiologically and behaviorally acclimatize and adapt to extremes of environment and physical activity and environment.