Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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( 'Nother Solent is this blog's good twin. Same words, searchable archives, RSS feed. Provided by a benefactor, to whom thanks.
I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

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Tuesday, August 17, 2004
It's only a game. In Saint-Exupéry's book Flight to Arras describing his experience in 1940 as a pilot fighting a losing battle against the advancing Germans, he somewhere observes that if the only weapon one had to fight a raging forest fire was a glass of water, then, yes, one would throw the glass. There are cases like that; as desperate as that - may the Lord have mercy on us all.

And there are cases not like that. There are cases when, really, the best thing to do is to sip a cooling drink and enjoy the spectacle of the flames.

Drugs in the Olympics are an example of the latter type. The athletes who take drugs to gain a secret advantage over those who obey the rules are cheats and scoundrels. Individually they deserve to be punished for breaking the rules they freely agreed to. But as scandal after scandal shows, the incentive to cheat is so great that they keep on doing it. Very sad, but, guys, guys, this one's not worth fighting over. It's all only a game.

When a mere game has unenforceable rules, you can just change the rules with no great loss to your honour. Who remembers now that there was once a time when the notion of amateur status was taken so strictly that an Olympic athlete such as Jim Thorpe could be stripped of his medals for taking having played some minor league baseball at $2 a day? All that proved unenforceable, so it was dropped. Do the same with drugs.

I am not here arguing in favour of ending the prohibition of drugs generally, though I do believe it should be ended. Very few of the performance enhancing drugs are illegal in normal life. Many of them are not even on prescription. What a relief it would be if extracting the urine from athletes could be restricted to the pages of satirical magazines. Instead commentators could learnedly compare A's training regime of pheno-ployxl-plasmasteroids to B's of speedilex buzzboosters.

It's true that some of these drugs might cause harm in later life. This bears watching, but it is no overwhelming argument in favour of banning them. Ordinary participation in sports might and often does cause harm in later life. Rugby players break their necks. Gymnasts get arthritis. Horseriders and rock climbers fall off horses and rocks and die. Boxers get brain damage. There are busybodies who want to ban those dangerous sports that are practised by men (they are oddly quiet about the ones, like riding, practised mainly by women) but that won't wash either - sitting in front of the TV refraining from dangerous sport will also cause you harm later in life.

Anyway, it's not as if a world where athletes are not harmed by performance enhancing drugs is a realistic option. All the rules and tests and punishments against drug-taking are evidently not enough to stop people doing it. The severity of that harm will be lessened if information on the drugs and their effects can be exchanged and assessed openly.

Perhaps, under my proposed dispensation, there would still be scope for "all natural" competitions where the present regime of drug testing would still apply. Given the smaller field of competitors the sports authorities would have a better chance of catching the cheats; and given that drug use would be legal for those athletes who wanted it, fewer cheats to start with. If there was a demand for that, fine. However I suspect that most of the appeal of athletics lies in watching people run fast and jump high irrespective of what they put in their bodies to do it.

Let's save our intransigence for battles that really matter.