SPORTS BEAT by Dayanti Karunaratne—Misguided war on drugs has no place on our sports fields

“Citius, Altius, Fortius,” is the Olympic motto. Translated from Latin, it means “faster, higher, stronger” and represents the vision that the human body can continuously improve on the last performance.

In the world of sport, however, “performance enhancement” carries a different connotation. It has come to evoke images of illegal, dangerous drugs and athletes obsessed with winning.

This image is somewhat misleading. While some athletes undoubtedly indulge in extreme forms of performance enhancement, many of the substances that have been banned are harmless — some are actually contained in cough syrup. And they work, so they will never disappear.

That is why it is time for Canada and the international sporting community to re-evaluate its position on drugs in sport. While a positive test due to an over-the-counter cold medication is usually forgiven, most agree the athletes who use drugs are cheaters. This is based on the rationale that drugs are against the rules and fair play means everyone must adhere to the same set of rules. But the rules do not relate the reality.

This is not to suggest that the floodgates be opened to any and all laboratory concoctions. Anabolic steroids, for example, come with a long list of nasty baggage like shrunken testicles and decreased sperm count. In women, steroids complicate the menstrual cycle and can result in increased body hair and other hormonal irregularities. But steroids and other performance enhancing drugs, or any drugs for that matter, aren’t going away. The reaction to increased drug use has been stricter and more thorough testing done on 90 per cent of Olympic athletes. While blanket testing and blood sampling might sound good when coloured with the idealism of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) — the body that administers Canada’s anti-doping policy — the larger picture must be examined.

The centre defines doping as “prohibited substances or prohibited methods that enhance sporting performance, risk health and/or are contrary to the spirit of sport.” But the issue of health needs a second look because there’s some truth in the old adage, “no pain, no gain.”

Often excellence in sport is not exactly good for the body and often involves health risks. From the stress fractures of over-training to the broken femurs of a downhill ski crash, athletes put their bodies through the wringer for the love of the sport and the pursuit of personal goals. If the use of drugs is another risk they are willing to take, so be it.

In addition, like the contentious War on Drugs, where criminalization of narcotics resulted in a dangerous black market, the impracticality of drug-free sport has only encouraged a strange science to customize enhancers so they cannot be detected. This forces groups like the CCES into an ongoing game of cat and mouse and our athletes have more important races to run.

For this reason, it is time for the sporting community to admit drugs are a part of elite competition. With this understanding athletes and the pharmacology community can work in an open, accountable environment to create a new standard for fair play.

If faster, higher, stronger is the motto of the Olympics — and unless we’re giving medals out for clean drug tests — it’s time to re-think anti-doping policies.