Why Clean Sport Matters Beyond the Playing Field

By Brad Stulberg

Doping is dangerous. It’s dangerous for the athletes who dope, who increase their risk of illness and death. It’s dangerous for the athletes who choose not to dope, who struggle to compete with cheaters and as a result miss out on podium finishes that pay for their rent and health insurance.  And it’s dangerous for those who aspire to be athletes, who may come to believe that they need to dope in order to make it to the next level.

We know all of that. It’s been said a million times and for good reason.  It’s true.

But the dangers of doping transcend sport. Laypeople have always looked to elite athletes for cutting-edge performance insights.  The best in the world are always one step ahead of the game—why not see what they are doing and emulate them?  So we buy the shoes elite athletes wear; drink the beverages they drink; model our sleeping-habits after theirs; and design our routines like they do. And now, we dope.

Increasingly, we’ve seen cases of weekend warriors use synthetic testosterone to win their age group at local triathlons and road races;  students illicitly using of Adderall to land on the right side of the bell-curve during exams on college campuses; and lawyers, consultants, and bankers abusing cocaine and similar stimulants to get promoted and earn bonuses in the corporate workplace.  This kind of doping—the doping that occurs outside of elite sport—is every bit as dangerous as the doping that occurs within it.  There are no team doctors or chemists to supervise.  Not to mention, “life-doping” has the potential to affect not hundreds or thousands but millions of people.

This can’t be the example that sport sets.  The stakes are simply too high.  We’re at a moment when robots are increasingly replacing human labor, the “quantified self” is thriving, and everything under the sun is being tracked and measured so we can “optimize” ourselves.  Sometimes I wonder if the robots are coming or if we’re becoming the robots.  If there was ever a time for mass-market doping to become even more widespread, for an “anything goes” mechanistic mindset to take hold, this is it.

Sport needs not to add fuel to this trend but to buck it; to serve as a strong counter-balancing force.  To be a final frontier that reminds people what humans—not super-humans—are capable of.  

In 1974, speculating about the future of society, the late George Leonard wrote that as the speed of technological innovation increases, more than ever, “we’ll need mythic beings to provide us models of behavior.” For Leonard, the ethical and persevering athlete—what he called “The Ultimate Athlete”—was the perfect fit. But Leonard also wrote that such a mythic figure would only arise if we worked for “reform and change of emphasis in certain attititudes” within sport.  Over 40 years later, his prescient message is one that we’d be wise to heed. 

Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He is a columnist at Outside Magazine and New York Magazine, and a coauthor of the forthcoming book, PEAK PERFORMANCE. Follow Brad on Twitter @Bstulberg and subscribe to his newsletter