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The Case for Performance-Enhancing Drugs

The Olympics saw only one doping (and one pot!) bust. Opposition to chemical boosting remains high, but the inevitable trend will end in an embrace—oddly, led by "smart drugs."
 
 
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Anyone familiar with addiction is likely to be wary of brain-boosting drugs: we all know how chemicals that once seemed the answer to all our woes can become instead our biggest problem. But those of us who have also benefited from antidepressants and other mood-altering prescription drugs know, too, that the right drug in the right situation can be positively transformative—and that simply deciding that “all drugs are bad” can be counterproductive. 

As technology advances, we’re increasingly faced with new drug issues that force us to examine and re-examine our values and our chemically malleable selves. With each Olympic games, we face new types of doping and tricky issues like why high-altitude training, which boosts levels of red blood cells just like “blood doping” does, is acceptable, but using drugs to achieve the same result is not.  (In the 2012 games, two athletes have so far been  banned: a race-walker for the blood booster erythropoietin, a common doping drug; and a judo fighter for marijuana, which no one would call “performance enhancing,” in sports at least.) 

The camp that supports removing the ban on safe doping in sports does so based on several claims. These include: that they maintain a level playing field because all athletes have equal access to the boosters, that permitting enhancers would allow it to be monitored for safety and that certain performance-enhancing drugs, like steroids, blood boosters and growth hormones, mimick the body's natural processes.

Soon, undoubtedly, too, someone will select an embryo for in vitro fertilization (IVF) that has genes linked with athletic prowess. That seems less natural than allowing talent to emerge through training, but nonetheless doesn’t involve truly artificial manipulation like genetic engineering or cloning.

In the not-too-distant future, we’ll likely also have to ask: is implanting a gene already found in athletes who came by it naturally “cheating”—and if so, why is it OK for those born with that advantage to use it but not OK for others to acquire it? After all, simply taking steroids or “smart drugs” doesn’t guarantee performance: if you sit on the couch and don’t train or study, you’re not going to have the skill or knowledge it takes to compete and the same is true for genetic endowments. (So-called smart drugs may enhance cognition, memory, wakefulness and other brain functions.)

Already, our attitudes around performance-enhancing drugs are highly dependent on context. For example, a recent study found that college men judge a hypothetical sprinter who wins a race because he takes steroids more harshly than they do a student who uses a friend’s Ritalin to boost his exam performance. The rationale? Sports are a zero-sum game: if I win, you lose. But my high test scores in class don’t necessarily influence yours: we can both do well even if a curve is applied.

When it comes to consideration of widespread use of drugs that improve mental clarity, it can be quite difficult, in fact, to make a rational case against them, provided that the side effects aren’t dire. For example, who wouldn’t want scientists to find a cure for cancer more quickly or for policy makers to become smarter to find better solutions to social problems? 

Of course, this immediately becomes a question of values: would a “smart drug” also produce smarter criminals—or would it make them less impulsive and thereby more likely to choose the straight and narrow? We want our friends to become smarter, but not necessarily those with whom we disagree. 

The best case against smart drugs involves fear of pressure to use them “because everyone else is”—but again, if the benefits outweigh the risks, why would this be bad? Alternatively, there are worries about the poor being left behind as the rich, who can afford to buy cognitive enhancers, gain ever greater advantages for themselves and their children. However, we certainly don’t deny the rich every other advantage for this reason.