Another Physiology Society event on “Designer Athletes”, this time at the Edinburgh Science Festival. The BBC’s David Eades chaired a really interesting debate on the past, present and future of drugs and technology in sport. I seemed to be playing the unusual role for me of the balanced middle-man, my views straddling the anti- doper Michelle Verroken from Sporting Integrity and the more open views of the University of the West of Scotland ethicist Andy Miah. Andy's view is that as technological, surgical and drug enhancements become common in everyday life it is going to be strange to restrict them artificially in sport. Maybe he's on to something. Only two people in the audience (one of them me) thought athletes should not use caffeine. Yet drinking coffee fulfils two of the three requirements for being possibly banned by WADA. It is performance enhancing and could be bad for health (a possible carcinogen according to the World Health Organisation*). Actually my vote for banning it was more about rules consistency than a passionate view that it should not be used. It seems to me to make no sense to ban other stimulants with the same performance and health profile just because in society they are classed as medicines and not beverages. Ban the lot or leave them alone.
Like Julian Savulescu from Oxford, Andy thinks the "health" of the athlete should be the only reason for controlling a product (whether drug or other enhancement). To be fair he realises that the "everything goes as long as it is not unhealthy argument" won't do away with the need to regulate how athletes treat their bodies. We may need to spend as much to safeguard their health as we currently do to test for doping. Even so, I am pretty sceptical that this approach will be practical. It will also change the nature of sports like athletics into a Formula One- like activity where the bioengineers and biochemists are more important than the athlete themselves. Crucially for the spectators, these benefits will be hidden – we won’t know why someone is better than someone else. I think this is what makes Formula One so boring - you can't really see why one car is better. At least in running we have the illusion that success is mostly down to the athletes themselves. Of course except for the Olympics, Formula One viewing is more popular than athletics so my argument may not be as strong as I think it is!
Still I did end the debate with the amusement of being accused by Michele Verroken of being a lackey of US corporate sport. My left wing teenage self was not impressed. My fault was to praise the "socialism" of Indycars versus the rampant consumer capitalism of Formula One; my point being that in Indycars all the cars are pretty much the same so the drivers have equal opportunities to win, whereas in Formula One the test is far more of the commercial car manufacturers and less of the drivers’ skills.
At both of these physiology society events the idea has been mooted to have Formula One in the Olympics. The argument is that chariot racing evolved out of the original Olympic games as man acquired new technology. Surely Formula One is today’s equivalent of chariot racing? Personally I’d rather go back to the future and have chariot racing itself in the Olympics. Now that’s a sport I would pay to watch. It would also be a great legacy for the Olympic stadium (sorry West Ham and Orient!).
* note I don’t view coffee drinking as remotely likely to give you cancer – it is just that it is classified that way by WHO.