Most of the public are familiar with the word “steroids”. This word automatically conjures up images of ridiculously inflated body-builder types, blind rages and shrunken genitalia. But very few people are familiar with the realities of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in sports, and still fewer are au fait with the real ethical and philosophical issues surrounding PEDs.
In fighting sports, as in other professional sports, anabolic steroid use is rife, as is the use of other performance enhancing substances. It’s impossible to put numbers on the table, as it is a clandestine phenomenon and subculture, but some professional fighters and industry experts have estimated that up to fifty percent of pro fighters are on performance enhancing substances of some kind.
Recent high-profile scandals have included:
1. Christiane “Cyborg” Santos, the premier female fighter at the time, being busted for using anabolics. This was a huge surprise, as literally no-one had noticed that she looked rather masculine for a lady, and that she appeared to have more testosterone in her system than rice has white.
2. Alistair Overeem, possibly the premier striker in the world and one of the most dangerous heavyweights in Mixed Martial Arts being busted for elevated testosterone levels. Another huge surprise, considering the fact that Alistair went from skinny light heavyweight kickboxer to “caricature of Superman” in a scant few years.
3. Chael Sonnen, Nate Marquardt and other very high profile UFC fighters using Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT), purely for medical reasons of course. In Marquardt’s case this led to dismissal from the UFC’s roster. In Sonnen’s case it appears to have led to two title shots. Go figure.
4. Lance Armstrong and other high level cyclists being busted for doing… everything available.
As independent and critical thinkers, the first question one must ask about any act which is commonly regarded as being “cheating” is: Is it really cheating? Well, it is certainly cheating since it’s against the rules of the sports in question. But the next question should be “should it be against the rules?” is it wrong at all, in fact? If so, what about it is wrong?
So is steroid usage “wrong”?
Well let’s be honest. If the act of putting chemicals into one’s body to increase one’s athletic performance were inherently wrong, then eating a high-protein diet would be wrong. Drinking protein shakes and energy drinks would be “wrong”. How is taking pills or injecting solutions any different in a practical sense from eating right and living healthy? Both of these methods change the body’s chemistry in substantial ways.
How about the “unfair advantage” argument? Well the only barrier to everyone using performance enhancing substances is the rules banning those substances. In other words, performance enhancing substances are banned because they confer an unfair advantage, because not everyone is using them… because they’re banned. Circular reasoning.
In fact, in response to the question of whether these drugs should be against the rules, some commentators go so far as to say quite literally and without irony “These drugs are bad because they’re against the rules!”. This is the argument of a child. Effectively: “They’re bad because they’re bad”.
In any case, there is no such thing as a “fair advantage”. Some people are born to be stronger or faster than other people. Is that fair? Does the term even apply? I don’t think so. I think it’s quite unfair in fact. Sport and combat are both based firmly on trying to gain every possible unfair advantage over your opponent, from out-working them in the gym to having “secret” technical training that will give one the edge.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in favour of using PEDs. But only because of health risks associated with those substances (anything from personality changes to risk of death). But there is a risk of severe injury or death in virtually all extreme athletic training. There is no independent moral argument against the use of these substances any more than there is a moral argument against running Ironman Triathlons… or against eating lots of fruits and vegetables. And this leads to an inexorable conclusion: If these substances could be used safely, in a safe regimen of carefully monitored doses (as they often are by the more experienced PED users) then there can be no argument against their use.
And the only way to monitor the PED regimens of athletes, and thereby to ensure their safety, is to legalize their use.
FYI, see this Handy Timeline of PED scandals in MMA, and to confirm that people are still arguing that “drugs are bad because they’re bad” with a straight face, see this debate.