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The Hope In Doping: Leveling The Playing Field

*Written by Rakshitha V.


The practice of doping has been a concept among sports players for a time longstanding. What had started off as using frog skin or mushroom species rooted in Norwegian mythology, or the administration of doping agents to horses in the Roman Empire, has now evolved into a widespread, but clandestine practice, in this sporting business. One of the original cases that defined doping in the modern world (20th Century) was that of Tom Hicks, who died in the Saint Louis Marathon as a result of a combination of a drug called strychnine and brandy. Subsequently, in the latter half of the century, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) posited a set of guidelines to control the use of anabolic steroids and mandated doping tests for athletes. The administration of doping agents thereon became a violation of the very fundamental character of sports - to ensure fair play and create a level playing field for all competitors.

However, it is not to say that the practice has been condemned and discontinued in the industry. With each regulation and guideline that is implemented, athletes and their coaches find an idiosyncratic approach to administering these drugs. For instance, in the 1976 Olympics, the East German swimming squad swept eleven of the thirteen events and they subsequently accused the state of providing them with drugs. Where sports was once just an arena for physical activity, fun and camaraderie, it has now evolved into a business-like transaction. Several countries invest money to a great degree due to the fact that it increases their revenue, which now runs to several billion dollars. Merchandise and ticket sales, sponsorships, broadcasting rights and especially tax revenue are all possible sources of income. Many sports fans purchase tickets to travel to Spain for La Liga, and Australia for the Grand Prix, among several other countries, as part of tourism and a one-time life experience.

They generate more revenue than they invest, which leads to the argument that sports is business, and the countries with higher funding for the same, eventually end up winning the rat race. This is best seen in the case of Australia, which invested a whopping $547 million in training their athletes for the Olympics in Athens and swept seventeen gold medals, amounting to tens of millions for each medal. When further reflected upon, we understand in-depth the role money plays, because Australians by birth or descent, do not possess any genetic markers or traits that would provide them with an upper hand in these competitions. They performed so, not only with their athletic ability but also due to the high-altitude training camps, hypoxic air tents, hypnotherapy, and acupuncture, among myriad other training aids and equipment that are not perceived as ‘drugs’, provided to them in lieu of the money invested by their country.

Is Level of Playing Field = Sports?

Now, my first question arises as to what the status of poorer countries facing economic recessions and budget issues is, who cannot invest as much as the Western countries do?

This brings me to my next argument with respect to genetic ability, which perhaps advocates for the regulation of the administration of doping agents. A multifaceted variable - athletic performance is impacted by both hereditary and external variables. A person's athletic prowess is influenced by a variety of physical characteristics, including the resilience of their muscle tissue and the fibre type that makes up those muscles. The ACTN3 and ACTN2 gene that is involved in muscle contraction help in improving short-timed activities but with higher intensity and improves the endurance of the muscles, respectively. Individuals who possess the said genes, more often than not, possess a higher athletic ability that reaches beyond just perspiration and hard work. Most people of West African descent possess the gene and it shows in the performance put forth by them at sporting competitions. Usain ‘Thunder’ Bolt hailing from Jamaica holds the world record in 100m sprints, but this is not the most surprising piece of information. When we trace back, there is a clear difference in the number of excellent male sprinters from countries Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, and Cameroon, among other West African countries as compared to the number of sprinters from Europe and Asia put together. On the flip side, it was found that East African (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Somalia) runners performed better at long-distance events as opposed to short sprints. This scenario accounts for one argument under genetic ability. The second sub-argument that can be made deals with special cases of an individual as opposed to the above proposition of a common genetic trait in countries. Jameson Weaver (Jamie), a 21-year-old athlete, had fingers pointed at him accusing him of injecting a synthetic drug Erythropoietin (EPO) due to his stellar record in track events. Upon bloodwork, it was found that Jamie had a mutation in the EPO receptor of his body which resulted in a significant increase in the production of red blood cells (RBCs), increasing the packed cell volume (PCV) which in turn led to the increase in oxygen absorption by the muscles. While this was a case of a genetic trait, there is another infamous individual with a physical one. Michael Phelps, the world-renowned Olympic swimmer, was born to be the ‘Flying Fish’. Now how does his swimming speed equate to almost 3 times more than the average swimmer? Phelps has physical characteristics that help him so; as double-jointed ankles and elbows, 15% more flexibility, and shorter legs when compared to the upper body, all, of which give him a significant advantage in his field.

What to Do to Overcome Genetic: Disadvantages?

This brings me to my second question, which is - what do athletes do when they do not inherit or possess any genetic or physical characteristics that give them an edge when they compete with athletes who do?

If we are going to advocate for the welfare of the players that compete in these sporting competitions, then we must also take into account the precarious nature of sports like American football, MMA, and Formula 1 where players have suffered from pericardial hematoma, among a plethora of other serious life-threatening injuries. But we do not engage in a discussion as to whether they should even be considered as ‘sports’, again because of the money invested in these billion-dollar sports. This further proves my point as to how the sporting field is a business and anyone with the money wins. To make it fairer in one sense, we should start by regulating the administration of doping agents. By doing this, we allow for a fairer play to the disadvantaged athlete, since contemporary events have proven that elite sport has shifted more to the favour of the fans and their viewership as opposed to being just a competition. The attitude of ‘winning by all means’ has replaced the traditional showcase of extraordinary athletic ability. Besides, it is only harmful when the PCV is high, so as long as EPO is administered according to the individual’s body, you would be maximizing the muscular and bodily capabilities of the athlete. It’s illegal and violative of fairness when you inject EPO but not when you use hypoxic air tents. Not every individual is beatified with the money or the genes to get ahead. Therefore, by allowing for the regulation of certain doping agents, we would be levelling the playing field and also witnessing the best performances by players. Furthermore, EPO therapy is still less expensive when compared to the hypoxic air tent despite the fact that the treatment starts four years prior to the sporting competition. Regardless of the quantity of EPO he or she introduces to their body, there are inherent thresholds to the number of RBCs they can make, resulting in a financial ceiling on this approach.

In The End : Conclusion:

The ground reality also is such that the offence versus punishment is not really proportionate. With the development of synthetic hormones and drugs that are almost undetectable, it has become easier to dope and cheat. Whoever does get caught is only penalized for a short period of time. Is the present-day marketing of sports about one’s ability to excel within the sport or one’s ability to possess the means to achieve excellence? By regulating doping agents, athletes are now given hope - beyond the one which their playing field.

*The author is a law scholar from Jindal Global Law School, OP Jindal Global University, India.

(The image used here is for representative purposes only)

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