Doping in Sports Can’t be Stopped by Technological Means

Blair Hanley Frank

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Many moons ago, when I asked my mother about whether or not she bought the allegations of Lance Armstrong’s doping, she said she thought that you either believed Lance’s claims that he didn’t dope, or you didn’t, and she fell into the former camp. That’s about how I felt, too.

Whatever last shreds of that belief I might have held evaporated last week, when Armstrong revealed in an interview with Oprah that he had been doping for each of his seven Tour de France wins. That admission was a long time coming and seemed to result, at least in part, from his current ban from all sanctioned competition.

Armstrong is now a part of a dark pantheon of former sports greats, laid low by their unending commitment to victory at all costs. Before Lance, there was Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Marion Jones, Floyd Landis, Jan Ullrich, Roger Clemens and many more.

While it will be cathartic to look at his history of deception and watch his fall from grace with the usual contempt and awe that comes with spectacles of this nature, we, the sport-watching public, need to start thinking seriously about the next scandal of this nature. Because unless we dramatically change the way we think about sport, these sorts of scandals will keep happening.

As someone who watches technological trends for fun, there is one thing I’ve seen play out time and time again: Human ingenuity will always find a way around a given rule set, especially if there is significant enough incentive to do so. Armstrong’s case is a perfect example: Part of the reason he was able to say that he hadn’t failed a drug test is that at the time he won the race, there was no way for the authorities to test for blood doping and EPO. The technology was simply too far ahead of them. In the case of professional sports, not only is there a significant incentive for the players to use performance enhancers, but there is also plenty of incentive for team owners, coaches and sponsors to look the other way.

While we vilify the athletes who thought it necessary to dope, or at best call them victims of circumstance, we are perpetuating a convenient narrative. We were swindled by these individuals without a moral compass, the conventional wisdom goes. To a degree, that’s right. But in order for the Armstrongs, Bonds and Joneses of the world to dope, there have to be enough people in their organizations enabling them.

A lot of people made money on improbable performances from the rampant steroid use of the ’90s and early-mid-2000s. The over-the-top performances enabled by science were a huge draw for fans and TV viewers, because, let’s face it: Superhuman feats make for great spectator moments. Barry Bonds’s multiple home run record chases drove people to baseball parks around the country as well as brought them in front of the television. For many of us, we were along for the ride, rather than wondering why it was that someone who had never before hit more than 50 home runs in a season suddenly managed to hit 73.

The fact of the matter is, the people who made money off of these performances––the agents, the managers, the endorsers whose sales were boosted by their connection to a tainted athlete––their math doesn’t change. Until the sport-watching public actually makes those relationships have a significant fiscal and social cost, we’re going to see the same cycle of widespread doping established in the ’90s continue in the decades to come.

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