Differential effects of doping.

by Andreas Baumann

Recently, Danish cyclist Michael Rasmussen admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) for more than ten years (nb: link in Danish).

Naturally, this led to public debate about the use of PEDs. However, I think one point needs to be adressed: the fact that the use of PEDs have different effects for elite sportsmen and ordinary people. Since one of the arguments against the use of PEDs within elite sports are the negative consequences for ordinary people, I believe that one should ponder this point.

Performance-enhancing drugs, when used by elite sportsmen, have very few to zero negative effects. Think about it: when did you last hear about a cyclist who died from the negative health effects of, say, EPO? There was a “massacre period” from the late 80s, culminating in the Affaire Festina (1998), but for the last 10-15 years we haven’t really seen any negative effects of the doping practices. On the other hand, we see the positive effects of the use of PEDs in every sporting competition: no man, driven alone by his spirits and desire to conquer, could race the Tour in a style similar to that of the great cyclists. Their cycling gives us pleasure, it allows us to marvel at the great performances. Those are the positive effects (externalities) of professional use of PEDs.

However, there are large negative effects of PED use outside professional sports: adverse health effects, due to the lack of qualified doctors treating complications relating to use of PEDs. In a system of socialised medicine (as most industrialised countries employ) this is an externality, since the people paying for the eventual treatment cost will not be the ones who have benefitted from the use of doping. Another negative externality from non-professional use of PEDs is the altered behaviour of users, particularly evident in users of anabolic steroids, who are prone to bouts of aggression and violence (CNS Drugs 2005).

Summing up, doping in professional sports mostly has positive externalities, while doping outside the realm of professional sports has negative externalities. Clearly, the logical conclusion should be that while the use of PEDs should be legalised (or at least decriminalised) within professional sports, it should still be illegal outside this field. But how do we reconcile this with our respect for the universality of law?
Many things, which are illegal outside of sports, are legal within this realm: boxing, to take one example. Maybe we ought to recognize that some of the regulations of drugs is subject to the same discretion.