Doping, Blade Running, and Wheelchair Basketball

Andrew Sullivan criticizes Jeremy Rozansky’s condemnation of steroid use by claiming that steroid use is perhaps less morally arbitrary than genetic inheritance of athletic ability. I agree with Sullivan that there is no question that part of any person’s athletic ability is not due to choices she actually made, and is indeed morally arbitrary. But, to be fair to Rozansky, Rozansky’s objection to steroids was not solely about fairness. The usual objection to anabolic steroids use is a matter of fairness – steroids give those who take them an unfair advantage. Rozansky’s objection is different. It has to do with his concept of sport:

A better way to investigate the moral meaning of performance-enhancing drugs is to ask some fundamental questions: What are athletes doing when they play sports, and what are we watching when we watch? The answer seems to be a certain kind of human excellence. If we just wanted to know who won or lost, we could check the paper the next morning — it is not simply that we are watching competition. Nor is it correct to say, as one recent paper on the ethics of performance-enhancing drugs claims, that “modern athletic sport is entirely focused on finding new ways to break the old records.” If our “entire” goal were to break pitching records in baseball, we could build pitching machines to pitch perfect games. It is worth asking why we would never do this, why we would never substitute our sportsmen with machines, even though machines could easily achieve superior performance. We admire winning and we admire records, but neither in isolation, only as evidence of superior human performance. We don’t admire the fastest cheetah more than the fastest man, even though the cheetah is much faster. It isn’t meaningful to compare Michael Phelps’s performance in the pool to that of a speedboat. Sport is an exclusively human kind of performance, carried out through a combination of natural gifts — unearned, undeserved, and unevenly distributed in the population — and willed activities. An excellent sportsman or athlete must be disciplined, driven, and daring. It also helps to have learned the best methods for how to train and practice. Our games are often intellectual pursuits as well: calling upon quarterbacks to read defenses, cyclists to budget energy, and batters to master the situation on the field. We admire the willed actions, but not only the willed actions. We still marvel at superior performance no matter how much of the performance relies on natural gifts…

One cannot be personally, fully excellent if the excellence stems, at least in part, from a chemical intervention. Rather than cultivate his own individual gifts, he has chosen to have different gifts. Rather than “stay within himself,” he has chosen a different self. So when Dan Naulty exclaims “Look, my fastball went from 87 to 96! There’s got to be some sort of violation in that,” he is intuiting how athletic achievement, once the prize of a full self who toils away at his own betterment in this activity, is corroded by the innovations of laboratories.

Modern innovations will continue to give us small and large opportunities to enhance our native gifts and thus circumvent laborious and praiseworthy craftsmanship at the heart of athletic superiority.

So sports properly done is a matter of being a functional human without the use of technology. Technological enhancement robs sport of its point. So, then, what are we to say to wheelchair basketball players? Sorry, you’re wasting your time? We do not admire you because your functioning in sport is enhanced with technology? Should the person who requires contact lenses, then, not wear them? Is he not personally, fully excellent at sports? Or maybe skiers, too. Hard to ski without technology, and all. And should we object to technological developments in sneakers, swimsuits, etc?

One might say (and some have) that this way of thinking, this insistence on the way of functioning as opposed to the level of functioning, is closely tied to prejudice against people with disabilities. We focus on the atypicality of the way in which a human function is performed (e.g., mobility in a wheelchair rather than walking) rather than the level of functionality which is achieved.

Now, to return to the issue of fairness. Oscar Pistorius presents us with a very interesting case. It seems very possible that his disability has given him an advantage. The prosthetic legs he wears might make him run faster than he otherwise would have. There was controversy about his participation in the 2012 Olympic Games. The thought was that his disability was an unfair advantage. First, allow me to say that, contra Rozansky, I do find Pistorius admirable, technological enhancements and all. And second, I see both sides of this. On one hand, he may have something that none of the other athletes have, i.e., amazing prosthetics. And that’s not a level playing field. On the other hand, is it any more to the the other runner’s credit that they were born with their athletic ability than it was to Oscar Pistorius’s credit that he was born without bones in his lower legs? Both circumstances are morally arbitrary. So why should Oscar Pistorius be ruled out? Because the way he has of doing something requires technology? That is how he achieves mobility. He couldn’t run at all otherwise. I wear glasses to achieve decent vision. It’s a minority of people who are double amputees, and then they would be favorites in running. But, you know. It’s a minority of people who are born to be 6’6″+ and who are thus favorites in basketball.

I really could respect Rozansky’s view had he stuck to the issue of fairness. And, I mean, Lance Armstrong lied and broke the rules. That’s bad enough. But his lack of admiration for the human body aided by technology speaks to something deeper. It suggests, however unintentionally, a view of  people with disabilities that has nothing to do with their level of functionality and everything to do with whether the way they achieve that functionality is typical.

[UPDATE]: In the comments, Michael Drew rightly points out that Rozansky has a point about where sports end and mechanics begin. For example, Rozansky’s comparison of Phelps to a speedboat. I’d say sports does have something to do necessarily with bodily effort. That that’s where the source of achievement lies. I disagree with Rozansky that it must be unaided by technology, but it must spring from bodily effort. For example, a wheelchair race between manually-powered wheelchairs seems legit, a race between electrically-powered wheelchairs seems pointless.

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67 thoughts on “Doping, Blade Running, and Wheelchair Basketball

  1. Pingback: Doping, Blade Running, and Wheelchair Basketball

  2. I man, just in evolutionary terms, where the body ends and artificial tools begins is arbitrary, and somewhat up for debate (aren’t fingernails tools, in so far as they are developed to serve a certain function?)

    Sullivan of course can’t wander that far though because, per is faith, what appears to be arbitrary must at some point up the chain become necessary, inevitable, providence, etc.

    So where as Sullivan might not find the claim that human beings’ current forms, and the variation among those forms, is somehow “natural” or “intentional,” the rest of us are left wondering how at some point something that’s arbitrary becomes non-arbitrary, whether this is the fact that I have larger feet or the fact that I have feet at all.


  3. If Oscar Pistorius’s abilities are suspect, then so too are the abilities of any baseball pitcher who’s had laser surgery for corrective vision.


  4. I am unsure where I come down on Pistorius, as it seems a complicated shade of gray. (Though regardless, what he has accomplished is nothing less than remarkable.)

    I think the issue here isn’t really one of “fairness,” not exactly – though that is the easiest single word to put my finger on. Kobe Bryant going one-on-one with Smush Parker isn’t “fair;” neither is Ali in his prime vs. some guy that was never ranked. “Fair” has nothing to do with it.

    Instead, we watch sports in part because we want to see a concise visualization of human achievement, unfolding before our eyes. Seeing Kobe Bryant score 81 was special; watching Tiger Woods tear through tournaments as a newly minted pro was special; watching Kurt Gibson beat the odds and the A’s with a bum leg and a heavy dose of grit was special. Even if you’re rooting against them, witnessing their achievements was – to choose an overused word in its proper context – inspiring.

    But in order to witness this achievement, there always has to be a baseline from which everyone agrees to start. WIthout that baseline, the achievements become meaningless. Michael Jordan wasn’t the tallest, fastest or most purely athletic person on the court ever; watching him overcome all of those deficiencies, over and over again, was breathtaking. But it was only so because when he walked out onto the hardwood, he was starting from the same place as the other 23 men suited up. If he were given springs on his shoes so that he could jump the highest, or extensions to his arms to block shots more effectively, he might well have had better statistics – but his accomplishments would have been tarnished, and we would not have cared to witness them (expect perhaps out of a quick curiosity).

    The reason that wheelchair basketball is not diminished is that all the players on the court start from that baseline. The reason that wearing cleats does not diminish a relay runner is that everyone on that track starts from that same baseline advantage.

    For those that aren’t into sports, I offer this analogy: You punish the guy that uses steroids for the exact same reason you punish the high school student that has snuck a smart phone into the SAT testing facility and is using it to up his score. It doesn’t matter that certain kids are naturally bighter than others, or that some come from better schools. or had better teachers, or are better at test taking – it only means something if everyone starts the test – at that moment when you’re asked to read silently while the tester reads aloud – starts from the exact same baseline.

    (That was long. I should have made this a post.)


    • He can’t be the only double-amputee runner using this gear.

      Do the others compete at his level, or are his skills superior?

      We have several friends who work to help people with adaptive skiing. The ingenuity, and the technology available both inspires and awes. I’ve watched volunteers spend tens of hours fine tuning gear so that a little kid could have one run down the mountain; one chance to feel like they can fly.

      If this guy can fly, all the power too him. And if he can fly a little faster then the good ‘ol boys? All the better.


    • Tod, but Pistorius isn’t someone with feet and springs attached. Those are his feet.

      What might end up happening is that running could be dominated by double amputees. Is that unfair?


          • This makes amputations almost exactly like PEDs, then: you have to have a “valid” medical reason in order to get them. “validity” of the medical reason will be determined by a doctor. Doctors will be able to find “valid” medical reasons for willing clients. Suddenly, a hell of a lot of runners have prosthetic limbs.

            The scary thing is the possibility that this happens (which I think is pretty much inevitable, actually, if people with artificial limbs start to win most or all races) and then the sporting authorities, freaked out by this, ban artificial limbs.


            • So far, a large majority of docs have been fairly unwilling to amputate healthy limbs for Body Integration Identity Disorder. I mean, PEDs are one thing, chopping off a limb is another. You have to wonder, too, how many runners will be willing to go through with it.


              • Rose, at first, I imagine not many, but as it becomes clear that one simply cannot compete without artificial limbs, I expect 2 things will happen:

                1) A non-trivial number of athletes will elect to undergo non-medically necessary amputations in order to compete.
                2) The amount of money involved will create a market for doctors who are willing to amputate legs when there is no valid medical reason to do so, and that market will quickly become saturated.


                • I can see a market for those amputated limbs, too. Replacement parts for those without or with injured.

                  hmmm. (I wrote 1/2 of a novel with this as the theme; place where you always had to worry about being attacked by limb stealers. Should have finished it; but I got distracted by my children.)

                  As mcmegan often says, markets in everything.


                  • Also, you can stop taking the PEDs, but can’t easily reattach your legs. Chris alludes to this, but I’d add the potential malpractice liability. An athlete later claiming that there was coercion involved.


                  • True, but once only athletes with artificial limbs are winning all the races, I’m not sure this is a distinction people are going to care about. In fact, I’m not even sure how it could be considered cheating, because holding naturally-limbed athletes to a standard that disadvantages them significantly would seem unfair to pretty much everyone. We’d probably all be horrified at the results though, and again, I suspect we’d start banning artificial limbs altogether. Or we’d make it possible for those without artificial limbs to use some other sort of limb enhancement (shoes that have similar spring, for example, or however the physics of it works out). Either way, it’s going to be an arms race (sorry, I know there’s a bad pun in there, but it is unintended), just like performance enhancing drugs.


    • The reason that wheelchair basketball is not diminished is that all the players on the court start from that baseline.

      I know a couple guys who participate in a wheelchair basketball league. They’re not disabled/differently-abled/whatever-the-term-is, but they know some people who are and thought it would be fun to participate and spend time on “equal ground” so to speak.

      What you’ll probably find humorous is that for their first few months of playing, they kept commenting about how the regular wheelchair players were kicking their butts. Some of those guys spend all day working their arms and get quite buff in the upper-body sense, far more so than the part-timers who get around most of the day by legpower.


  5. I find it strange that in all these discussions it rarely seems to come up that using PEDs is against the rules. Now, I’m no prude and maybe even a bit of an anarchist when it comes to political matters, but sports have all sorts of arbitrary rules that nevertheless get enforced.


      • My students will often come to me…

        “Mr. Kazzy! Jimmy is cheating!”
        “What game are you playing?”
        “What game is Jimmy playing?”
        “Are you and Jimmy playing together?”
        “Are you playing the same game of Bey-Blades?”
        “Did you agree to follow the same rules?”
        “Well, it is only cheating if someone isn’t following rules that everyone agreed to. If you and Jimmy haven’t talked about the game your playing and the rules, than he isn’t cheating. You might not even be playing the same game.”
        [blank stare… runs off..]
        “Hey guys! Jimmy isn’t cheating!”
        “Cool!” “Yea!” “Wahoo!”

        * I don’t give my kids Bey-Blades, but they enjoy constructing them out of various manipulatives in the classroom. Some teachers frown on this, but it is actually pretty cool to see them attempt to design an ideal Blade. They have to consider balance, construction strength, duration of spin, coolness of design, etc. Sorta like a soap box derby… BUT WITH BATTLE TOPS!


          • Heh… In a way. At least the way they play in my class. Which actually seems more fun than the real toy (kids have brought them in for show-and-tell).

            My favorite part is tha many kids thnk they ACTUALLY have to yell, “Let it rip!” Or else it won’t spin properly.


        • Is there some notion that there is an implied set of rules that everyone agrees on before playing, unless something is stated otherwise? In theory, I find it hard to suggest that there must be a meeting of the minds on every single possible point of dispute that might come up.

          Of course, I’m being a little facetious–and I know nothing about teaching children and don’t mean to imply you’re doing anything wrong–but I do wonder if there is not a default set of rules. (For the records, I have never heard of bey-blades.)


      • For the entire time people like McGwire, Canseco, A-Rod, Bonds, and Clemens are supposed to have been juicing, it wasn’t against the rules in baseball. That’s why A-Rod wasn’t suspended for his positive test.

        Performance-enhancing drugs are as old as sport, and I have absolutely no ethical problem with using them if everyone can use them.

        What made Lance’s use a betrayal was less that he used them, even though they were against the rules, but that he was so ruthless in his attacks on the people who told the truth about his PED use.


          • What’s that got to do with anything? The question is whether they were breaking the rules.

            Google up Bowie Kuhn’s 1971 drug policy. More importantly, think about how silly the argument is, “my company doesn’t specifically prohibit me from using Drug X without a prescription, therefore it’s OK.”

            Then perform the experiment of listing all the baseball players who, at the time, proudly announced, “hell yeah I’m using steroids, what’s the big deal?” Not admitting to it to sell a book, or when the issue was safely in the rear-view mirror, but at the time.


      • For all of the steroid era, it was illegal to use PEDs without prescription. And every baseball contract has stipulations for punishment if players commit crimes and reflect negatively on the sport.


  6. I completely agree that the problem is more to do with how drug use squares with the aim of the activity itself rather than fairness. As long as PEDs are banned, yes, there’s an unfairness that cheaters will prosper so long as not caught. But that’s an artificial unfairness created by the ban in the first place. Get rid of the ban, and the sport simply becomes partly about who can best manage the drug cocktail best suited to their body chemistry’s max-perfomance needs. One could argue that economic factors would then govern the drug advantage – but the problem with that is that economic factors already govern various competitive advantages in sport – from equipment to facilities to coaching to the simple question of whether an athlete must have a day job or not.

    No, the question is whether we simply regard the use of these chemicals as conceptually anathema to the sporting endeavor. I don’t have an opinion on that. I don’t think there’s a good reason that we couldn’t just say that it isn’t and that’s the new definition of sport, but I don’t think there’s an unavoidable argument that that would change sport to something else entirely that’s not sport and that we don’t want to have take sport’s place. It’s just sort of up to us. The unbearable lightness of roids.


    • Correction:

      I don’t think there’s a good reason that we have to say that it (legalizing PED use) isn’t conceptually anathema to sport and/or that it should just become part of the new definition of sport, but I don’t think there’s an unavoidable argument that that would change sport to something else entirely that’s not sport and that we don’t want to have take sport’s place, either. We just have to decide what we want sport to be.


  7. On mechanical enhancements, I do think that R does raise an interesting theoretical question – at what point is the human simply not doing the sporting activity? But it’s not really a practical concern at all, in my view, at least not yet. I.e., in his pitching machine example, what if a brilliant mechanical designer built a pitching machine that could break all the pitching records, but he also had a dream of being – or calling himself – the greatest (by statistical records) baseball pitcher of all time. Say baseball changed its rules radically such that any mechanical enhancements at all could be used to aid in the pitching game only. So this guy gets signed up with a team, and starts just wheeling his machine out to the mound and stands next to it while it mowed down 27 straight batters every game for 25 years. Except, the thing is, he insists, and baseball agrees, that he mowed them down. The machine aided him in doing so.

    We’d want to say he didn’t, and that he never engaged in any sport – only brilliant mechanical design. That situation would be nothing like wheelchair basketball or Pistorius’ prostheses (or high-tech golf clubs for that matter), but we could imagine cases between these extremes. It seems like we may, depending on the evolution of technology and of thinking in sports governance, eventually need a way (or ways) to define participation in sport (or particular sports) such that we’ll know when a person using a particular mechanical enhancement to excel in a sport is in fact still participating in that sport as a valid human participant rather than as someone who has developed or acquired a technology that could aid a person in manipulating the elements of the sport such that the sport is being excelled at, but not necessarily by the person as we imagine the intent of the inventors of the sport would indicate (allowing for modifications to their intent).

    Now, we won’t need this for individual sports to be able to continue on as technology progresses. They’ll just do what they’ve always done and make determinations sport-by-sport, technology-by-technology, case-by-case. But if we want to make meta-judgements of those judgements to allow us to analyze the co-evolution of sport and technology,then we may need that.


    • Yes, I agree, and I elided the issue. I haven’t thought about the issue much, but offhand I’d say it does have something to do necessarily with bodily effort. That that’s where the source of achievement lies. Not unaided by technology, but it must spring from bodily effort. For example, a wheelchair rave between manually powered wheelchairs seems legit, a race between power wheelchairs seems pointless.. Actually, I’ll update the post, I think. Thanks.


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