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An Answer to Failure of Anti-Doping Efforts?

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Nicholas Johnson, guest columnist

I’m not proud to say it.

It was the 1960s. Illegal drugs were everywhere. I was a young lawyer, living as a hippie-public official. That’s what kept me from drugs — not health concerns, personal discipline, or common sense. Illegal drugs simply couldn’t be part of my life.

That doesn’t mean I’m a fan of our “War on Drugs.”

Illegalization has promoted more crime, not less, probably contributing even more deaths from the use of guns than from drugs. Because there’s no quality control of illegal drugs they’re even more deadly. It’s occasionally involved our government in the cocaine trade. Not only has it cost taxpayers billions of dollars, it has simultaneously kept the government from collecting taxes on sales (as it does with alcohol and tobacco). When it rarely produces a dip in supply, that simply drives up street prices and profits for dealers. It’s made us the number one nation for percentage of incarcerated citizens — including more blacks working as prison laborers today than once worked as slaves.

So what’s the alternative?

In 2001, Portugal repealed criminal penalties for possession of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Fears of increased costs and consumption proved unwarranted. Health services for addicts were cheaper than incarceration. Teens’ drug use and HIV from dirty needles declined. Addicts seeking treatment more than doubled.

The elephant in the Rio Olympics’ venues — performance enhancing drugs (PED) — brought Portugal’s experience to mind.

Athletes’ PED use began with the first Olympics 2000 years ago, 776-393 BC. Today it’s present in most sports, and from high school, to college, to the Olympics, to professional athletes. Efforts to stop it have proved as futile as our 1920s prohibition of alcohol, and more recent War on Drugs.

If only ineffective it would just be a waste of money. As it is, it also infuses otherwise honorable, sportsmanlike contests with subterfuge, lying, and deceit — to the harm of sports’ fans, athletes, and our children. It risks athletes’ health from the lack of physician monitoring and the use of unsafe, untested substances and dosages. It encourages a contest of escalating sophistication in the design and detection of ever more difficult-to-detect substances.

Need athletes be protected from themselves? Injuries and death occur in many sports; athletes “assume the risk,” legally and morally — think brain injuries from football. Shouldn’t adults be as free to do their own benefit-cost risk assessments of doping as of any athletic or other risk?

Want a level playing field? It doesn’t exist.

Many things can enhance performance. Athletic parents who start training their three-year-olds. Poor students who run five or 10 miles each way to school. Wealthy parents who provide private coaching and clubs, and free their college athletes from the need to work. Coaches with the equipment and knowledge of sports science (including diets) to maximize training efficiency. Working out at higher altitudes to gain an oxygen boost upon return.

Doping also can and does affect performance. But because it is also illegal, surreptitious, and widespread, it creates a terrible conflict for coaches and athletes — dope and risk getting caught, or comply with the rules and risk adding the hundredths of a second that can separate winners from losers.

Perhaps organized athletics, including the Olympics, should consider abandoning their ineffective anti-doping efforts. Perhaps they should consider the sports equivalent of the Portugal approach. Let doping join the long list of other things by which athletes and coaches can enhance performance — with approved drugs, dosages, and supervision by medical doctors and pharmacists.

A perfect solution? Of course not. But with a 2000-year history of failed bans, it may be a least-worst option worth trying.

Given today’s widespread doping in all sports, the competitive results would be little different. But it would be safer, less deceitful, and create a more honorable and level playing field for athletes, coaches, and fans alike.

• Nicholas Johnson, a former sports law professor, lives in Iowa City. Contact: mailbox@nicholasjohnson.org.

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