How far could sports 'cheating' go?

How far could sports 'cheating' go?

Drugs in sport are big news. We are all curious about why certain substances are used, how they are detected, and whether they truly have an effect on the body. In Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat, I explain how performance-enhancing drugs work and the challenges of testing for them, putting in context whether the ‘doping’ methods of choice are worth the risk or the effort. I also explore the moral, political and ethical issues involved in controlling drug use, addressing questions such as: What is cheating? What compounds are legal and why? Why do the classification systems change all the time? Should all chemicals be legal, and what effect would this have on sport?

Perhaps surprisingly to the casual observer, an individual outstanding performance – such as winning a gold medal at the Olympics in a record time – need not necessarily have been drug enhanced. With certain exceptions (for example anabolic steroids for female athletes), we really don’t know enough about the extraordinary bodies of elite athletes to be sure that drugs will always improve them. Drugs provide shortcuts, but do not always change the final destination.

Yet all this may change in the future. Science is revealing a multitude of new opportunities for dopers, limited only by ethics and money. What would a world look like where we did not have these constraints? Recent work on genetic alterations in rats and mice that affect rodent ‘sports’ performance are feeding into our rapidly emerging knowledge about the genetic underpinning of human performance. Remarkably, simple genetic experiments can produce long-distance running ‘supermice’ or strong ‘Schwarzenegger mice’. We are not there yet, but genetic engineering is suggesting ways of radically improving human performance, raising ethical and moral questions for the future of sport.

An athlete is only able to enhance his performance a little at a time: the runner of today is only 10% faster than the runner of 100 years ago. Technology moves more quickly: we may fear a new doping agent that will suddenly help shatter world records, but nothing has ever compared to the advent of the new, more buoyant swimsuits that resulted in 43 swimming world records being broken at one event. The term ‘technology doping’ has been coined for occasions such as this.

There are significant problems with transferring the concept of ‘technology doping’ to performance-enhancing drugs. In general it is easy to check a piece of technology at the time of an event and disqualify rule-breakers. An athlete’s body is more resistant to revealing its secrets; testing is difficult. And while technology can act to make sports safer (much safer in the case of Formula One motor racing), biochemical doping is rarely a safe option.


Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat 
by Chris Cooper is out now from OUP.