Performance Enhancers in Sports and Society

Performance Enhancers in Sports:

Where’s the Line & Is It Arbitrary?

For decades now, players and spectators have railed against the use of steroids.  Drawing from a strong sense of principled ethics, these folks argue that performance enhancing drugs are inherently bad and should not be used.  Normally, this argument is presented by itself; the negativity of steroids is more or less assumed in American culture at large.

But why?

Mark McGwire SteroidsSome point to the health effects that steroids most likely produce, especially if abused.  Others say the use of steroids promotes the use among youths who idolize the celebrity-stars of modern professional sports.  But the most relevant argument concerns the very integrity of the game: performance enhancing drugs are the newest form of cheating, critics argue, and therefore undermine the essential quality of sport.

Diluting the “purity” of the game affronts every lover of sport.  Moreover, many fans maintain such an emotional attachment to keeping the game “pure” that we cringe whenever anything threatens the almighty status quo.  Just as Pete Rose and Joe Jackson were literally kicked out of baseball for allegedly cheating, many today call for equally harsh punishments for steroid users today.

While the health and science behind steroids is too complex to decide the debate here, the steroids controversy raises another equally important – yet shockingly unexplored – line of debate: what about all the other “performance-enhancers” that are so prevalent in sport today?

Why is Michael Phelps excoriated for trying a drug most college students try at least once (marijuana), but he is admired as America’s greatest Olympian when he wins eight gold medals in large part because of his highly-advanced swimsuit (a swimsuit Mark Spitz would surely have loved to have)?  Recent technological progress has created so many new tools that all artificially (in the sense that they are non-natural) enhance performance.

Yet the ethical line in the sand seems to place only steroids (which I’m using here to include all drug-based PED’s or techniques like blood doping, HGH, etc.) in the realm of the undesirable or wrong.

It is time, I propose, to reevaluate our collective sense of ethical boundaries by examining the costs and benefits of new tools that, like steroids, enable the modern athlete to reach far beyond his otherwise high potential.  By accepting what is safe, widely accessible, and effective and rejecting what is dangerous, restricted, and counterproductive we can elevate the overall quality of sport in a way that both respects the fundamental “play” nature of sport while also augmenting the competition on the field, pitch, court or mat.

Contact Lenses Enhance Vision

First, let’s consider a number of recent products which have largely flown under the radar of contentious debate.  I’ll begin with my own experiences, as those provide me the most concrete sense of the benefits and costs of certain tools.  As a varsity baseball player in high school, I was exposed to several tools that certainly enhanced performance.  Most pervasive is the batting glove, and even the fielding glove itself.  When Alexander Cartwright codified the first set of rules for the New York Knickerbockers baseball club, most players used their bare hands to field the ball, and certainly all entered the batter’s box with nothing more than their uniform (no helmet, no shin protector, no batting gloves).

However, the practical necessity of fielding gloves became apparent to reduce injuries and make the game more playable and watchable (nobody wants to see their team commit 10 errors a game, which was not unusual in the beginning).  Yet while batting gloves can prevent the occasional sting in cold weather, they do not contribute to safety the way fielding gloves do. And they do not fix a glaring problem with the game (like the ubiquity of errors).  As anyone who watches any level of baseball today knows, though, batting gloves are on nearly every batter’s hands.

Indeed, my own experience would make me uncomfortable batting without gloves: the fear of a painful sting can commandeer a batter’s consciousness and distract him from focusing on hitting the ball.  Batting gloves removes that fear, allows a batter to concentrate further and enables him to make more solid contact more often.  Clearly, as their prevalence implies, batting gloves enhance performance, directly or indirectly.

Before we assess the acceptability of batting gloves, let’s consider other performance-enhancing tools.  As a player, I was one of the first high school athletes to try Nike’s new contact lenses that are tinted so that they filter certain frequencies of light, theoretically enabling a player to see certain objects better.  Nike describes them as “one-of-a-kind tinted soft contact lens that gives added visual improvements for both serious and recreational athletes.”  Nike manufactures different versions for different categories of sports.  One lens is for sports like golf, baseball and tennis, where Nike claims the ball will “pop” out of the scene by enhancing the color contrast that your eye perceives.

Nike Vision ContactsAlso filtering 95% of harmful UV light, these lenses also act as sun glasses, though Nike recommends using traditional sun glasses as well.  This technology, if as presented, would clearly give a serious edge to any player who used it.  Hitting a small white ball traveling at 90+ MPH with a wooden stick only a few inches around is widely considered one of the most difficult feats in sports.  Any advantage in this act creates a huge competitive imbalance. Enhancing hand-eye coordination elevates a player far beyond his or her natural ability because of how crucial such coordination is across so many sports.

When I wore them (just for my senior season) I decided I could live with looking like the devil (the orange lenses make for a bizarre appearance) because they would better enable me to hit pitches and field balls.  Ultimately, I wore them because I wanted to raise my batting average, slugging percentage and fielding percentage.  Ultimately, I wore them to enhance my performance.  Effectiveness aside (Nike has discontinued the product, and I eventually concluded I was better off without them because in cold weather they became stiff and uncomfortable), why wasn’t I rebuked by my teammates and opponents for using an unnatural performance enhancer?

In the world of baseball, many other technologies offer similar scenarios.  Nike’s traditional sunglasses are so sophisticated today that many players refuse to play without them.  Advances in cleat technology have allowed players to get the most comfortable footwear with better traction and less weight than ever before.  Surely this enhances speed on the base-paths.

Even the modern pitching machine raises questions, since now a player can practice endlessly by himself, taking thousands of swings to perfect coordination.  Babe Ruth never enjoyed that luxury; he needed a coach to throw to him, and even then only until the coach got tired.  The greatest performance enhancer in baseball, however, is “correcting” one’s eyesight through regular contact lenses or, more recently, laser eye surgery.

Unquestionably, literally improving one’s eyesight makes it easier to see a 90 MPH fastball, and therefore, it unquestionably enhances performance.  “Even if you have perfect vision,” one company advertises, “the right pair of sports glasses may help you see better than your rivals.”  One study even found a 25% improvement for professional tennis players who had blurred vision corrected.  Clearly, each of these technologies enhances performance.

Michael Phelps LZ Racer

Speedo’s Crazy-Advanced Super Swimsuit

Baseball is not the only sport subject to new technology.  Michael Phelps famously wore Speedo’s full-body LZR Racer (which was developed in part by NASA) during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  Notably, Phelps smashed several world records en route to another record of eight gold medals in one Olympic Games.  “Is Michael Phelps cheating?” seemed like a reasonable question by the standard of “performance enhancing”.  Here’s how NASA describes the (performance) advantages given by an advanced swimsuit:

A study conducted by Speedo’s Aqualab research and development unit determined that viscous drag, or the friction one experiences when moving through the water, accounts for 25 percent of the total retarding force on a swimmer—a major concern in a sport where every hundredth of a second counts. To test materials that would best reduce drag, [Los Angeles-based company SpeedoUSA] partnered with NASA and sent nearly 60 different fabrics to analyze using a small-scale wind tunnel at Langley… Speedo’s Aqualab soon after designed what became the most efficient swimsuit ever made: the LZR Racer.

The LZR Racer was the first fully bonded, full-body swimsuit with ultrasonically welded seams. The process of fusing seams ultrasonically rather than overlapping and stitching fabric helped reduce drag by 6 percent. NASA also demonstrated that a low-profile zipper, ultrasonically bonded into the fabric and hidden inside the suit, generated 8 percent less drag in wind tunnel tests than a standard zipper.

Interestingly, the issue became more contentious during the 2009 World Championships.  Phelps lost the 200m freestyle to a German that he had beaten by four seconds just a year earlier, but who used another company’s latest advanced swimsuit.

Immediately after that loss, Phelps’s coach “float[ed] the idea of Phelps boycotting future international events until racing suits are returned to a state of being relatively equal.”  How ironic that Phelps’s coach is the one complaining about the potential unfair advantage of swimsuit technology.  These suits use polyurethane and have caused an avalanche as world records are falling like never before. In just 32 events at the 2009 Championships, 21 world records were broken.

There is another bizarre twist to the swimming debate.  Two swimmers were actually disqualified during the World Championships.  But not for wearing technologically superior suits.  They were disqualified because they wore two suits, one on top of the other, apparently in an attempt to trap extra air between them, making the swimmer more buoyant.

Why were those swimmers disqualified for something that gave them a competitive advantage when most other swimmers also had a competitive advantage by using special swimsuits?  Perhaps one can rationalize the dilemma by positing that since most (if not all) swimmers used the newest suits then there is no competitive imbalance since everyone has equal access. For a number of reasons I will outline below, this logic is severely flawed.

wrestling shoes asicsinally, let’s consider some performance enhancers in other sports and in sporting generally.  Basketball shoes, wrestling shoes and even bowling shoes all offer an athlete distinct advantages over regular sneakers.  Yet each of these is considered nothing more than a part of the necessary uniform of the sport.  Such a declaration seems utterly arbitrary.  Surely ancient Greeks who wrestled did so with no special shoes; Naismith never wore a pair of “Air Jordans”; the guy who invented bowling probably didn’t invent the bowling shoe either.

So if the games originated without these pieces of equipment, then they must not be part of the essence of the sport.  Each of these examples were created in order to make the sport better, to help athletes compete better… to enhance performance.  If we really yearn to create a true test of one person’s ability at a given sport, then shouldn’t athletes use nothing more than their bodies?  As soon as any equipment is introduced (even including safety equipment; just ask a hockey goalie how easy it is to stop pucks with no pads) performance is almost by definition enhanced.

And as the equipment is improved – as countless large companies (Nike, Speedo, Spalding, Adidas, Asics, Wilson, Louisville Slugger among others) strive to do everyday – performance on the field is inevitably enhanced.  In fact, those companies are quite up front with the fact that they see their mission as creating products that will improve performance on the field; they are in the legal performance-enhancing business and nobody complains about them.

What about Creatine?

More broadly, improvements in diet, nutrition and training have allowed all athletes to train more efficiently, to reach higher plains of ability and to go beyond what they would have achieved without these improvements.  For example, as a high school athlete, I experimented with creatine, a legal (though still controversial) muscle-building supplement that is considered one of the most effective muscle builders available. Refreshing energy stores on the cellular level, creatine enables an athlete to go beyond their natural anaerobic threshold, allowing them to lift more weight, increase endurance and add weight.

Creatine was and still is highly prevalent in high school sports, and for good reason: it works. In addition to creatine, I used other supplements as well. During my most intense competition, I routinely ingested whey protein supplements, ZMA’s (zinc magnesium aspartate, an effective muscle builder), multivitamins, and so-called “recovery drinks” like Endurox.

Creatine results chart

Keep it simple, stupid: Not a bad sales pitch.

While each of these helped me in various small ways, one additional supplement took my abilities to another level.  NO2 X-Plode is a complex blend of amino acids and nitric oxide compounds that dilate the blood vessels, allowing more blood (and the replenishing nutrients carried therein) to reach tired muscles.  Though usually taken for building muscle, I used it to increase my cardiovascular capacity since it dramatically increased my endurance, my mental focus, sharpness and it delayed muscle fatigue.

In a grueling six-minute wrestling match, both competitors are usually completely spent by the end of the match.  Yet I am convinced that the advantage I gained from using NO2 X-Plode helped me become a better wrestler (from awful to just about average) and helped me win more matches (…more than zero).  Without question, all of these supplements enhanced my performance by a very significant margin (again, relatively speaking to my previous performance).

Beyond sports – Fluoride, extra time, prosthetic limbs

Carlos Ruiz Smiling

Carlos Ruiz wasn’t smiling after being suspended for 25 games in 2013 for testing positive for Adderall. (Credit: Eric Hartline, Delco Times)

This desire for improvement extends to ingested substances and medicine as well.  The government puts fluoride in the water supply in order to improve dental hygiene.  More recently, many students are prescribed Ritalin, Adderall and other drugs in order to improve attention.  Furthermore, those students often are allowed “extra time” on standardized tests.  Though every person responds differently, there is an unchallenged consensus that these drugs definitively enhance mental and academic performance, sometimes to an amazing degree.

Even though these drugs are “unnatural” and distort one’s true abilities, our culture seems to embrace them because they distort performance in a positive direction.  Similarly, nobody would object to wounded soldiers receiving prosthetic limbs (some of which are incredibly realistic and functional) despite the obvious reality that these folks will forever be enhanced by external (non-natural) parts.  Some amputees even compete in triathlons and other competition after adjusting to their new body part, demonstrating that virtually no physical defect is insurmountable.

When does the slope get too slippery?

In short, recent history is one long story of attempts at enhancing performance in every endeavor.  But what if a soccer player wanted to surgically insert a metal plate into his shin, allowing him to play more aggressively?  Or what about a pitcher who has artificial tendons placed in his pitching elbow that are more durable or flexible than his original elbow?  When does medical technology cease to be seen as correcting an apparent “problem,” as begin to be viewed as a dangerous and unethical slippery slope?

Are fans prepared to accept players with artificial parts?  If not, is that not discrimination against the physically disabled?  And if so, at what point does one draw the line – how “bionic” can one be before it is unfair?  Advancement and improvement is so central to the American character that it is quite a surprise that we do not extend such enthusiasm for progress to the realm of sports.

Now, having established that there exists a multitude of performance enhancing tools and substances throughout sports, we must evaluate which of these are acceptable and which we must reject.  Clearly, it is useless to decry any and all performance enhancers since modern sport would not be able to exist without many institutionalized and accepted performance enhancers.  Furthermore, the history of man indicates a perpetual desire for self-improvement.  Just in the past 100 years, all aspects of society from business to transportation to communication to sport have all benefited from robust and widespread advancements in technology and methodology.

Cell phones have surely enhanced the performance of the modern businessman and laser sights have enhanced the performance of soldiers in militaries.  American history in particular is filled with constant innovation.  In fact, Americans readily accept as a core part of our national identity the notion that competition is good because it breeds improvement which is good because it improves efficiency, ultimately enhancing everyone’s quality of life.

Should access be the standard we use to separate acceptable performance enhancers from unacceptable ones?  Certainly, it should be considered.  If one group of people is unable to obtain the same advantages that other groups of people have ready access to, then an obvious problem of fairness emerges.  Yet this standard is not sufficient.  Steroids, in theory, are available to anyone.  Yet because of their legal status, only those with the connections and money are able to truly find and use them appropriately.

But even if the MLB distributed steroids so that every player had the choice to use them properly and there was no unfairness in the process, many would still object for myriad other reasons.  Laser eye surgery is similar to steroids in that the procedure entails unavoidable health risks, it can be costly and it confers a big advantage to an athlete.  Perhaps the routine-ness of laser eye surgery has eliminated the public’s cynicism towards it.

One argument is that laser eye surgery only corrects a physical defect in a person and therefore is more akin to medicine, which the person “needs.”  However, plenty of athletes with fine vision get the surgery because it can enhance one’s vision beyond “normal.”  And since there is not objective standard of “normal” at the end of the day, anyone could claim some minor issue is so detrimental to their ability to live that they “need” a corrective procedure, or steroids, or some other supplement or surgery.  The slippery slope seems particularly slick.

Personal choice – it’s a dangerous world

In my ideal world, I would return the burden of responsibility to the players. To me, it is wrong for any legislative body like the US Congress, or any sports league like Major League Baseball to tell its constituents what they can and cannot do to their own bodies.  Of course there are inherent risks to taking steroids or getting laser eye surgery.  But there are also inherent risks to driving a car, drinking alcohol, joining the military, flying in a plane, eating imported fruit and using cell phones.  So we permit ourselves to do inherently risky things all the time.

Why is there a difference when it comes to drugs and steroids?  If an athlete wants to smoke marijuana or do cocaine before they play their sport, that choice should be up to them.  If, as most authority figures claim, such behavior impairs the athlete, then the athlete suffers the consequences on the field and in his paycheck.  But maybe doing those or other drugs helps the person in some unique way.  Only we can know what gives us utility and it seems wrong for any authority to unilaterally take away my choice to affect my own body.  While clearly some drugs and steroids present serious public health issues that cannot be ignored, I believe we must air on the side of personal choice/responsibility when decided what to outlaw in the world of sport.

Now, some argue that professional sports leagues must look out for the image of their league.  As businesses, they have every right and obligation to protect their brand.  And if those leagues decide that steroids, drugs or other behaviors are counter to the image they wish to project, then it is their prerogative to ban whatever they wish.  But they shouldn’t justify such action with the hollow claim that they are protecting the integrity of the sport; they’re only protecting the sport from the ugly threats, the protection disappears for the threats that are convenient.

Leagues should be concerned about their image and take necessary action to stay profitable.  But that’s a separate issue.  We should not feel compelled to react so curtly to anything that enhances performance because most things that enhance athletic performance are benign, widely-accepted and have vastly improved the game.  Surely nobody watching sports today would argue we should return to the 1890’s world of sports when everything was truly “pure” and there were no “artificial” tumors on athletic competition.  Batting gloves, Gatorade, vitamins, medical advancements and modern technology have radically altered the way athletes prepare for and compete in their craft.

We should hail and encourage this.  Lawyers and doctors are required to earn continuing education credits throughout their career because we expect them to stay up-to-date with the most advanced methodologies and tools in their field; we expect people in every field to do all they can to enhance their performance.  It is the American way and it is human nature.  Performance enhancers – in and of themselves – are not the enemy.

Rather, dishonest attempts to confer on yourself an unfair advantage are (should be) the enemy.  Throwing a spitball, having tar in your glove, corking your bat or sabotaging the opponent’s equipment are all “performance-enhancing” activities that are outlawed with good reason.  They are not outlawed because of their performance enhancing ability, but rather because they represent malicious behavior with the specific intent of un-leveling the playing field.

From the inception of organized sport – really from the inception of animal “play” – humans have had an aversion to cheating and unfairness.  Even three-year-olds understand this concept and get upset if their playmate takes their toy for themselves.  So we must draw the sharpest distinction between those actions which are carried out in order to give oneself a secret and unfair advantage during a given game and those actions which are meant for society in general to use to enhance the overall state of the sport and the overall level of performance within the game.  This is undoubtedly difficult since it requires analyzing the intent of a given athlete.  But that is what is needed.

Within that broad distinction, are there categories we can establish to guide our understanding of performance enhancers?  Beyond the benevolent intent of the individual, this becomes difficult.  Categories like surgical enhancement, drug enhancement, tools-of-the-game enhancement or others seem as arbitrary as when we started.  Within each of those groupings, we can find both acceptable and unacceptable forms of enhancement.

Batting gloves are okay, but pine tar is not, though both would be in the tools-of-the-game category.

Laser eye surgery is fine, but implanting super strength tendons, ligaments or bones is unacceptable, at least until medicine advances to the point where such procedures are normal aspects of everyday life.  Then, the individual would not be gaining an unfair advantage, rather, society and the sport generally would benefit by the overall level of play increasing.

To be sure, this is a tenuous and troubling way to distinguish good and bad performance enhancers.  But it is the least bad because it allows for structured change around our broadest collective sense of right and wrong: individual intent.  All athletes should strive to better themselves, but not in a way that is inherently unfair.  If an individual wants to be innovative and create a new way to get better (through steroids, new training or new substances) they should seek to normalize those actions so that the sport is the prime beneficiary, not the individual.  “Purity” is a concept that has little meaning since true purity would require abolishing most modern aspects of sport that society has come to embrace as a normal part of fair play.  But once fairness is compromised by one individual deliberately operating outside those norms in order to gain a temporary unfair advantage, then we should pause and scrutinize the effects of their actions.

+Cliff Satell

Note: this essay on performance enhancers by Cliff Satell was originally written for “Philosophy of Sport” a Duke course taught by Prof. Ben Ward in Fall 2009.  It has been updated slightly.