Defensive Doping

When asked about using banned substances to maintain his winning record, champion cyclist Lance Armstrong said it was “part of the job”—like having “air in our tires” and “water in our bottles.” In other words, if everyone’s doing it, it’s not cheating.

But bioethicist Kenneth Kirkwood says that defensive doping—choosing to take illegal substances because other competitors do so—doesn’t level the playing field. In a 2012 article in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues entitled “Defensive Doping: Is There a Moral Justification for ‘If You Can’t Beat ‘Em—Join ‘Em?’” Kirkwood argues that doping is unfair, even if everyone is doing it. Athletes may be taking different drugs, and they may respond differently to using those drugs, so the outcomes of doping do not create a fair situation.

At the same time, we tolerate all kinds of unfairness in sports. Athletes have different skill levels and different body types. They also have access to different equipment and different trainers.

Moreover, guidelines on doping vary widely. Deer antler spray (which contains small amounts of a banned substance) is perfectly legal, for example. Both golfer Vijay Singh and Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis have used this substance in the hope of improving their performance.

In the end, it may be our win-at-all-costs sports culture, rather than particular substances, which is the problem.