Nature 448, 512 (2 August 2007) | doi:10.1038/448512a; Published online 1 August 2007

A sporting chance


Bans on drug enhancement in sport may go the way of earlier prohibitions on women and remuneration.

Whether you have been following the just-finished Tour de France or waiting for Barry Bonds to break the all-time record for major-league home runs in baseball, the topic of drugs in sport has been hard to avoid of late.

To cheat in a sporting event is a loathsome thing. For as long as the rules of the Tour de France or any sporting event ban the use of performance-enhancing drugs, those who break the rules must be punished whenever possible. But this does not preclude the idea that it may, in time, be necessary to readdress the rules themselves.

As more is learned about how our bodies work, more options become available for altering those workings. To date, most of this alteration has sought to restore function to some sort of baseline. But it is also possible to enhance various functions into the supernormal realm, and the options for this are set to grow ever greater.

The fact that such endeavours will carry risks should not be trivialized. But adults should be allowed to take risks, and experience suggests that they will do so when the benefits on offer are enticing enough. By the end of this century the unenhanced body or mind may well be vanishingly rare.

As this change takes place, we will have to re-examine what we expect of athletes. If spectators are seeking to reset their body mass index through pharmacology, or taking pills that enhance their memory, is it really reasonable that athletes should make do with bodies that have not seen such benefits? The more the public comes to live with the mixed and risk-related benefits of enhancement, the more it will appreciate that allowing such changes need not rob sport of its drama, nor athletes of their need for skill, training, character and dedication.

Is it really reasonable that athletes should make do with bodies that have not been enhanced?

To change the rules on pharmacological enhancement would not be without precedent. It was once thought that a woman could not epitomize the athletic ideal as a man could, and so should be stopped from trying. Similarly, it was thought proper to keep all payments from some athletes, thus privileging the already wealthy. These prejudices have been left behind, and the rules have changed. As pharmacological enhancement becomes everyday, views of bodily enhancement may evolve sufficiently for sporting rules to change on that, too.

This transition will not be painless. Some people will undoubtedly harm themselves through the use of enhancements, and there would need to be special protection for children. That said, athletes harm themselves in other forms of training, too. They may harm themselves less with drugs when doctors can be openly involved and masking agents dispensed with.

There is also the problem of who goes first. The first sport to change its rules to allow players to use performance-enhancing drugs will be attacked as a freak show or worse. The same may be true of the second. This may well have the effect — may already be having the effect — of delaying the inevitable.

Perhaps the Tour de France could show the way ahead here. In terms of public respect, endurance cycling has the least to lose and perhaps the most to gain. To be sure, a change in the rules would lead to the claim that 'the cheats have won'. But as no one can convincingly claim that cheats are not winning now, or have not been winning in the past, that claim is not quite the showstopper it might seem to be.

A leadership ready to ride out the outrage might be better for the sport in the long run. If some viewers and advertisers were lost along the way, the Tour could console itself with the thought that it got by with far less commercial interest in days gone by — and that it is more likely to re-establish itself through excellence and honesty than in the penumbra of doubt and cynicism that surrounds it now.