How the high school steroid crisis changes the legalisation debate

The following is a guest post by Simon Longstaff, Executive Director of the St. James Ethics Centre. They host the IQ2 debate ”It’s ok for athletes to use performance enhancing drugs” this Thursday, May 9th at City Recital Hall. 

The controversy about athletes’ use of performance enhancing drugs took on a new dimension, last Friday, with confirmation that students at Brisbane’s prestigious St Joseph’s Nudgee College have been implicated. This news will be the realisation of the worst fears of many concerned that the ‘win at all costs’ mentality is tainting all of sport. So, what lies behind the mounting sense of moral panic? And is the concern justified?

The intrusion of the issue into school sport is significant for the positioning of the wider debate. Schools include sport in their curriculum for reasons other than the encouragement of physical fitness and skill. The dominant rationale for school sport has always been explicit about the beneficial effects on character. Specifically, school sport is promoted as an arena within which children can experience and develop the virtues of cooperation, selflessness, perseverance, endurance and courage. The experience of winning and losing is seen to be critical in the development of people who possess resilience sufficient for a life which inevitably brings mixed blessings. Indeed, the advocates of school sport – which consumes considerable resources – have built their case for relevance on just such ground (as have those who encourage participation in sport amongst young people, in general).

The fact that school sport is not unique in offering such lessons is not the important thing here (other programs, such as in the performing arts, can offer the same benefits). Rather, the whole ethos of school sport is explicitly linked to an ideal that celebrates fair play and magnanimity in both victory and loss – the very ideal that underpins popular engagement in sport, more generally. Thus, the air of ‘crisis’ that greeted the news from Nudgee. If banned substances were being used in a school then this could only be because, even here, the ethos of sport has lost its hold – being supplanted by the rival idea that sport is first and foremost about winning.

But even this analysis may miss the point. One of the implicit promises of sport is that it offers an opportunity to engage in contests that are ‘fair’ and ‘true’. By this, it is meant not only that the games are regulated by rules administered by impartial judges of ‘fact and law,’ but also that the results are determined by factors such as skill and commitment exercised in the public arena. It is in this sense that sporting contests are presented as a kind of public truth – where what you see is what you get.

This stands in stark contrast to many other contests in life – where the outcome is determined by ‘veiled’ factors such as come with the exercise of wealth, power and influence. Too often, the outcome of a contest is decided behind closed doors – with the archetypical ‘faceless men’ doing deals in archetypical ‘smoke-filled rooms’. The great attraction of sport is not so much that it is entertaining (which it can be) or that athletes get faster and stronger with each season. No, the great attraction is to be found in the idea that sport offers up results that are a ‘public truth’.

So, what happens when the results are based on a hidden factor – the use of drugs that boost recovery or enhance performance beyond a level that a person would achieve if nature was left to do its work? It may be that people feel that the use of such aids is unfair – in that it favours those with the resources needed to purchase such sources of enhancement. However, as noted above, I think that this concern may be less than that the source of advantage is hidden. This might suggest that the solution is to bring the whole machinery of enhancement into the light. This might be done by changing the rules to allow for once-illicit means to be regulated and applied within the framework of sport’s rules. The public might not be able to see the drugs at work within the athletes’ bodies, but they would be able to note the ‘cocktail’ of drugs and other measures being used.

Indeed, this is close to the argument proposed by Australian philosopher, Julian Savelescu. Savelescu argues that prohibition has failed, that performance enhancing (mostly using equipment) is commonplace in the history of sport and that the only bar to using performance enhancing technologies (including drugs) should be human safety. But would Savelescu argue for the extension of enhancement technologies into schools (even if safe to do so)? It is a matter that I must ask him when we meet this week at the IQ2 Debate on the topic, “It’s ok for athletes to use performance enhancing drugs”. The importance of this debate is that it looks beyond the question of whether or not athletes should obey the rules set by WADA and ASADA. Instead, the debate is intended to explore the core principles on which the rules ought to be based – pitching Julian Savelescu and regenerative medicine specialist, Robin Willcourt, against legendary Olympian, Shane Gould and sports great and author, Peter Fitzsimons. And this is where the issue of school sport takes on such significance.

If we are to take seriously the claim, made by schools, that sport is not about winning at all costs – and that the inclusion of sport in the curriculum is primarily about developing a good character, then how can we expect less from those who are at the top of their respective games? One option to consider is that we not set the standards according to the expectations and needs of those who are the elite performers of their generation but, instead, look at the issue through the broader lens of society, in general, and its children (the citizens of tomorrow) in particular.

Simon Longstaff is Executive Director of the St. James Ethics Centre

“It’s ok for athletes to use performance enhancing drugs” 6.30 pm – Thursday, May 9th. City Recital Hall Angel Place - http://www.iq2oz.com/Sydney-May-9Th