I watched on television Floyd Landis' stirring victory in the hard mountain-ascending stage 17 of the Tour de France after he stumbled badly in the difficult previous stage. Landis went on to win what seemed like a remarkable victory, but tests taken after stage 17 showed abnormally elevated levels of testosterone. The French then stripped him of his title as winner of the 2006 Tour. Professional cycling is now in bad repute partly because of this latest scandal, and partly also because just prior to the Tour several major riders were disqualified for testing positive for banned substances.
These cycling scandals came not long after scandals in American baseball, where Bobby Bonds, Jason Giambi, Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, and other stars appear to have been guilty of using performance-enhancing steroids to push them to record breaking performances, especially in home run hitting. World class track stars, such as Olympic 100 meter champion Justin Gatlin, professional football players, weightlifters, swimmers, and outstanding athletes in other sports also have either failed drug tests or are suspected of using banned substances.
Why should various chemicals, like steroids, blood transfusions and other forms of drug doping, and looming possible gene doping, be banned in competitive athletic contests if the athletes know the risks to their health from using banned substances to enhance their performance? The principle justification for banning doping when it harms persons using "dope" comes from the fundamental nature of athletic competition. The reward system is based not so much on absolute performance levels, although that does count, as on performance relative to competitors. For example, Lance Armstrong, who has successfully fought off continuing claims that he used dope, is remembered primarily for his six consecutive triumphs in the Tour de France, not for his winning times in any of the races, or on any of the stages. Victories are primarily what count also in World Cup soccer and American football, in weightlifting and boxing, in running, in tennis, and all other competitive sports.
Rewards are related to victories because live and television audiences and the media are mainly interested in outcomes from competition, not absolute performance levels. That is, they pay primary attention to who wins tennis match, a baseball, basketball, or football game, a marathon, or other contests. In essence, competitive sports are an example of the "super star" phenomena analyzed by my late colleague Sherwin Rosen. Super stars, including superior teams, get large rewards even when they are only slightly better than competitors, while those who are only modestly inferior receive much lower incomes and prestige. As a result, professional baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, tennis, and many other sports have a few performers and teams that do very well, like Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, and the New York Yankees, while the vast majority of their competitors get much more modest benefits.
In this environment, certain types of doping are attractive to athletes because it gives them a competitive edge. The problem arises because overall outcomes when many of the performers use dope is essentially zero sum in the sense that if all leading athletes take steroids, other chemicals, or different forms of dope, they all tend to increase their performances without often having much effect on who wins or scores high in a race, game, or contest. In other words, participants may engage in doping to improve their performance and hence chances of doing relatively well, but obviously not everyone can improve their relative position. In a contest where relative performance is what matters, what may be rational for the individual athlete makes little sense for the collection of athletes.
This becomes a matter of concern when the performance enhancers, like steroids and other forms of doping, have a negative effect on long-term health. For then users of these enhancers are hurting themselves in the long run without on the average improving their short-term rewards from athletic competition, as long as competitors also use harmful enhancers. This is the main rationale for trying to ban steroids and other forms of doping from athletic competitions. It sometimes also leads to bans of other costly enhancers that do not affect overall outcomes. For this reason, golf limits the number and size of clubs that can be used in competition, baseball bats cannot be "corked", professional tennis limits the types of rackets permitted, and professional baseball, soccer, and other team sports limit the number of players that teams can have on their rosters.
The same argument applies but in much weaker form to performance enhancers that benefit athletes using them, such as training hard and keeping in very good shape, eating a balanced diet and keeping weight at healthy levels, or spending time studying opponents and videos of one's own past performance. Athletes would tend to use more of these enhancers than if they were not competing, which helps explains why many of them "go to pot" after they retire from active competition. But since the effect of these enhancers is on the whole beneficial to athletes using them, or at least not very harmful, there is little concern about such activities, and no effort to regulate them.
To be sure, absolute performance also counts to some extent, such as the number of home runs in baseball, scoring averages in basketball, pass completion rates in American football, the number of goals scored by a soccer player, and speed in running the mile and other races. But even here there is a crucial relative aspect. Roger Bannister‚Äôs breaking of the 4 minute mile barrier was noteworthy not mainly because 4 minutes has some special significance, but because no one had done that before. Baseball fans are upset that Bonds, McGuire, and Sosa apparently took steroids because that enabled them to break the single season record for home runs established by Roger Maris, who did not take drugs, allowed Bonds to pass Babe Ruth in total home runs-Ruth did not use enhancers unless one counts constantly getting drunk- and helped Bonds close in on the all time home run leader Hank Aaron-who has a squeaky clean reputation.
While the case for banning various types of drugs and other enhancers is strong, the ability to control doping is limited. For there is a continuing battle between bans and the discovery of new enhancers that have not been banned. So steroid use in baseball was not banned until after several major players greatly improved their slugging performance through using them. Perhaps some sports would like to restrict excessive use of weights and other forms of training, but detection and control of these activities would be impossible.
The result is a fragile equilibrium between the banning of various substances, enforcement of bans, and the search for new substances and ways to evade bans on old substances. This is not a perfect outcome, but I believe it is on the whole better for competitive sports and for participants than a policy that allows all kinds of performance enhancers and stimulants.