Saturday, February 11, 2006

Cheering the Cheaters

With the arrival of the Winter Olympics in Torino Arthur Caplan has written a new column for MSNBC.com (also posted on the AJoB blog) on the ongoing (and unsuccessful) campaign to eliminate doping from competitive sports.

Caplan’s column mixes a healthy dose of witticisms with a plea for the common sports fan: stop cheering the cheaters.
read more...
Odd as it may be, it is you and I who determine the extent to which drug doping permeates the Olympics. At the end of the day, if we don't want cheating in the Olympics then we cannot behave as if the one and only goal for each and every athlete is winning a gold medal.

If all the honor, money and celebrity accrue only to those who finish first then no matter what testing is done, athletes will cheat. So while testing for drugs is important, the best antidote to doping is not to create a culture in which only those who finish first count. Not to do so guarantees that there will be a few more Zach Lund skeletons in our national closet before the Turin games are through

Caplan readily admits that he views most performance-enhancing drugs as having no place in athletics. Personally, I don’t entirely share Caplan’s view. If we’re going to allow skeleton racers (to borrow Caplan's topical example) to endanger their health by hurtling themselves downhill at faster-than-highway speeds, inches from the ground in unenclosed vehicles, it seems slightly hypocritical to object to their use of performance-enhancing substances because they are unsafe.

Nevertheless, I concur in Caplan’s argument that attempting to fight cutting edge doping techniques by developing equally sophisticated antidoping countermeasures is a losing battle. With the cheaters always a step ahead the solution seems to be to remove the incentive for athletes to break the rules, to find a way, as Caplan suggests, to make athletics something more than winning gold.

But how do we do this? Telling fans what they shouldn’t do - create a culture where “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” - fails to tell those fans what they should do instead. Should we tune out during the medal ceremony after every event? Should we only buy boxes of Wheaties with silver medalists on the front?

In sports winning clearly isn’t everything, and it certainly isn’t the only thing, but I’m not convinced that it won’t always be the most important thing. And that’s a problem for Caplan’s proposal.


1 Comments:

Blogger Tim Kanwar said...

I posted substantially these same comments over on the AJoB blog.

For the sake of completeness here is what has transpired over there so far:
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I like the article although, personally, I don’t share the view that most performance-enhancing drugs have no place in competitive athletics. If we’re going to allow skeleton racers to endanger their health by hurtling themselves downhill at faster-than-highway speeds, inches from the ground in unenclosed vehicles, it seems slightly hypocritical to object to their use of performance-enhancing substances because they are unsafe.

Nevertheless, I do agree that attempting to fight cutting edge doping techniques by developing equally sophisticated antidoping countermeasures is a losing battle. With the cheaters always a step ahead the solution seems to be to remove the incentive for athletes to break the rules, to find a way, as Caplan suggests, to make athletics something more than winning gold.

But how do we do this? Telling fans what they shouldn’t do - create a culture where “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” - fails to tell those fans what they should do instead. Should we tune out during the medal ceremony after every event? Should we only buy boxes of Wheaties with silver medalists on the front?

In sports winning clearly isn’t everything, and it certainly isn’t the only thing, but I’m not convinced that it won’t always be the most important thing. And that’s a problem for Caplan’s proposal.
Tim Kanwar | Email | Homepage | 02.11.06 - 7:46 pm | #
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Tim


good points! I for one would be ok with a Wheaties box that had the entire US skiing or skating or for that matter curling team on it.
Art Caplan | Email | Homepage | 02.12.06 - 10:25 am | #
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I think the curling team would be the best fit. Wheaties already taste like ground up broom handle...
Tim Kanwar | Email | Homepage | 02.12.06 - 10:54 am | #
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I feel obliged to press the point in my first post just a little bit further...

While I fully believe that you’d be just as happy having your Wheaties endorsed by the bronze-medal curling team as an American individual gold medalist, do you really think that this is (or could become) a widely held position among consumers?

I’m no Madison Ave. marketing executive but I believe there are economically sound reasons why the Super Bowl MVP, and not the backup center on the losing team who finally made it to the Big Game after spending eight years on the practice squad, is the one going to Disney World in all the commercials.

I suspect that many consumers are largely indifferent to athletes as icons and marketers. If they’re going to eat Wheaties it doesn’t matter whether there’s a gold medalist or a panda bear or anything at all on the cover of the box – they’re going to go ahead and eat their Wheaties. But for the (larger) segment of society that is swayed by advertising and by athletic endorsements it is, for better or worse, personal achievements and associated name/face recognition that makes athletes successful endorsers. And though it would be nice to imagine that consumers and corporations, sports fans and sports leagues alike could look beyond wins and losses and view athletics as something more, that just doesn’t strike me as all that realistic in our current environment.

But perhaps I’m wrong there. Do you truly believe that a different athletic paradigm is feasible? If you do I’m interested in how you think it might come to pass. And if you don’t I wonder where we will find the solution to the doping problem in sports. I don’t think WADA, or anybody else for that matter, is going to be able to get out ahead of the cheaters and put an end to it. So what do we do?

To my mind there are at least two remaining alternatives: deterrence or acceptance.

Deterrence: We could attempt to further disincentivize cheating by _substantially_ upping the penalties for those that are caught, perhaps even to the point of jail time. I don’t know if that would succeed in reducing the incidence of doping/cheating but I do think it would cast a pall over sports that I, as a sports fan, wouldn’t enjoy.

Acceptance: On the other hand we could try to come to grips with the reality that as long as winning remains the primary goal of athletic competition athletes will do almost anything in their power to enhance their odds of winning. Enhancement has been a part of sports since long before pharmacological supplements entered the picture. Some enhancements (steroids and spitballs) we have labeled cheating and attempted to eradicate. Other enhancements (fiberglass hockey sticks and personalized, round-the-clock training regimens) we have condoned and incorporated into the games themselves.

I understand that performance enhancing drugs, especially ones that are poorly understood and not thoroughly tested, are potentially very dangerous to athletes. But many if not most athletic competitions involve dangers, often substantial, that we readily allow athletes to assume. And if pharmacological enhancement isn’t a trend we can reverse by making the drugs illegal then shouldn’t we at least consider the possibility of legalization and regulation? Allowing athletes to freely and openly enhance would also allow scientists to research, develop, and test those enhancers in the open light of peer-reviewed research and trials, helping to minimize the health and safety risks incurred by competitive athletes who insist on using performance enhancers.

Certainly there are downsides to this approach, not the least of which is the pressure that would be placed on all athletes to engage in enhancement in order to keep up with the field. But if ever there were a situation ripe for the elevation of the run-of-the-mill sportsman to the level of world champion, gold medal hero it strikes me that it would be this one: the unenhanced athlete who makes a principled decision to set the drugs aside and compete on his own steam alone.

Perhaps it will require us to bring cheating out into the open to force sports fans and marketers to realize that there is something more to sports than bringing home the gold at all costs…

- Tim
Tim Kanwar | Email | Homepage | 02.12.06 - 11:42 am | #

Sun Feb 12, 11:49:00 AM EST  

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