In his recent (8/12/08) New York TIMES article titled "Let the Games Be Doped," John Tierney argues that we should let athletes take any drugs -- or use any artificial means they want -- in athletic contests. I was going to write a letter to the TIMES, but got lazy and/or busy. Now, in today's "Science" section, there are two particularly anemic letters criticizing Tierney's perspective. So I'm provoked to write.
Of course, there are obvious questions. If all artificial means are OK, why can't Olympic swimmers use flippers? or why not weapons? Take THAT, Michael Phelps!
But that's not my point (see also my Valentine's Day card on EconoSpeak this year at http://econospeak.blogspot.com/2008/02/next-steroids.html). Tierney comes at the issue from a "libertarian" angle, arguing essentially that it's up to the individual to decide on whether or not the costs of steroids (or whatever) outweigh benefits. The problem is (as is often ignored by so-called "libertarians") there are external costs. In this case, athlete A imposes costs on athlete B without the latter's consent.
In plainer prose, if athlete A uses steroids, that gives him a competitive advantage. So, if athlete B wants to win, she has to take them too (or compensate for her disadvantage in some other way). With a bunch of athletes in the same event, it's unlikely that the relative rankings will change a lot due to steroid use. The external costs would push them all to use steroids -- and they'll all end up pretty much where they started. Since steroids have bad side-effects, it's a kind of self-destructive competition.
Robert Frank and Philip Cook call for an "arms control" agreement in this situation. All of the athletes in an event are prevented from using steroids, then we prevent the self-destructive competition. That's what anti-doping rules are all about.
Further, the Olympics involve what Frank and Cook call a "winner-take-all" competition (in their book THE WINNER-TAKE-ALL SOCIETY). That means that if someone wins a gold medal (in a TV-popular event) it means big bucks, along with a lot of non-financial rewards. But if you win "only" a silver or a bronze medal, the rewards are nil. This creates a massive incentive to engage in self-destructive competition.
What to do? We could split athletics into two completely separate "tracks." On the one hand, there would be dope-free track, where athletes must voluntarily participate in drug tests. On the other, there would be the "Tierney track," where all artificial means are allowed. Saturday Night Live had a skit about Tierney's idea a long time ago, back when Dennis Miller was funny (see http://www.hulu.com/watch/4090/saturday-night-live-weekend-update-all-drug-olympics).
My guess is that the drug-free track would have much greater prestige. In terms of "libertarian" notions, I'd bet that it would pass the "market test" with flying colors. The Tierney track would go the way of the late unlamented XFL.
Note that I am not against new technology (cyborgs in athletic events, etc.) Go for it: if you want to abuse your body, it's your right as an American! (Why not heroin?) Nor am I saying that Big Brother should dictate to all athletes. But there should be a minimal-technology or "clean" track in athletics. If people don't want to participate, they don't have to.
On top of that, some effort should be made to get rid of the "winner-take-all" element. For example, take the money out of sports. This is less likely to happen. But I think we can all do something as individuals: shun "big league" sports and watch "minor league" or amateurs ones. Here in L.A., forget the Kings and watch the Long Beach Ice Dogs. Even better, instead of watching sports, participate in them. Among other things, it's actually good for one's health. And feel free to use advanced technology, like a Wii.
-- Jim Devine