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Performance enhancers create ethical uncertainties

This is an excerpt from Introduction to Kinesiology, Fourth Edition edited by Shirl J. Hoffman, EdD.

Ethics and the Use of Performance Enhancers

Although athletes have used performance-enhancing drugs for a long time, these drugs became more prevalent in the late 1950s, when anabolic steroids came on the scene. Their use has been on the rise ever since (Todd 1987). Although precise figures are difficult to find, data from the U.S. National Football League show a large number of suspensions since 1982, when it implemented a policy of suspending players who tested positive for drugs (Boeck & Staimer 1996; Mosher & Atkins 2007). In this section we look at the use of performance enhancers—drugs as well as other things—from ethical perspectives (Osterhoudt 1991; Simon 2010).

The main ethical problem is that performance enhancers give athletes an unfair advantage over opponents. You might ask, then, which substances improve performance unfairly, and which substances improve it fairly? Your first answer might be that natural substances (e.g., food, testosterone) are fair, whereas unnatural substances (e.g., steroids, amphetamines) are not.

The distinction between natural and unnatural, however, is problematic. Technological breakthroughs in facilities and equipment—long-body tennis rackets, artificial track surfaces, sophisticated basketball shoes, and better-engineered racing bicycles—are unnatural. Yet performance enhancers such as these would generally be considered fair, even though limits are sometimes placed on technology (e.g., golf balls and baseballs could be engineered to travel farther, but limits are placed on this attribute). However, although testosterone is a natural substance, its use is typically considered unfair when it is taken in doses beyond what a person might produce in his or her own body (Brown 1980).

One solution is to create a level playing field by giving all competitors access to whatever performance-enhancing aids they want. Another possibility is to distinguish between performance enhancers that increase a body’s capabilities and those that just make it possible to use more effectively whatever capabilities the body already has (Perry 1983). But neither of these options, for a variety of reasons, has proved satisfactory.

Another view suggests that performance enhancers should be prohibited if they put the health of an athlete or others at risk or if they are shown to make athletes dangerous role models for young children. But this approach raises serious questions about the rights and freedoms of athletes to make informed choices about their own health. It raises equally complicated questions about where, when, and under what conditions adult freedoms should be curtailed for the well-being of less mature or less well-informed individuals.

Finally, there is the matter of privacy and individual rights. When is drug testing acceptable, and when is it an ethically unwarranted intrusion on an athlete’s freedom as a human being? If we test athletes for recreational drugs or illegal drugs that don’t enhance performance, some would argue that we are invading their privacy in unacceptable ways (Thompson 1982).

Clearly, difficult ethical issues are connected with athletes’ use of performance enhancers. Uncertainties remain concerning which aids are morally unacceptable, although performance enhancers that present health risks to athletes seem to be viewed as less acceptable than other performance enhancers. Additional investigations are needed to examine the ethics connected with using different kinds of aids to enhance sport performance.

Learn more about Introduction to Kinesiology, Fourth Edition.

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