PEDs and the Myth of the Level Playing Field

The Truth About Fairness in Sports

According to this expert, banning performance enhancing drugs doesn’t create fairness in sports, and it never will. Here’s why.

What do these four things have in common?

  1. Santa Clause
  2. The Tooth Fairy
  3. The Easter Bunny
  4. An Even Playing Field in Sports

Answer: None of them really exist.

But most people really want to believe in number four because it’s what makes everything “fair.” But that’s not the case. And you’ll realize it once you think a little more critically about the inherent advantages and disadvantages all competitors have.

The Fairness Fairytale

People want to think that there’s this utopian “even playing field” whereupon only the purest form of sport is played. It’s like something you’d imagine in a novel about ancient Greece, where all athletic feats are guarded over by the gods and dominated by the most finely hewn examples of elite athletic prowess – unspoiled, ethical, and pure.

Everything in this fairytale is fair and all sports provide this field upon which athletes will play fairly, particularly kids. It’s a safe place, with rules governing every single thing that goes into winning. And of course, the emphasis, isn’t on actually winning, but on hard work, sportsmanship, and fair play. And there are trophies just for showing up.

Real Sports in the Real World

But in reality, if you do compete with the intent of winning, you will be confronted, ultimately, with what has been termed the “nefarious side” of sport: performance enhancing drugs.

And with that comes those intent on pressuring sports federations to mandate anti-doping policies and curtail drug use to insure an “even playing field.” Doing so will send a message to kids of the importance of work ethic and fairness.

At some point, the budding athlete is going to be consumed by the group’s dynamic and faced with the inevitable question of whether or not breaking the same rule everyone else is breaking is actually cheating. Nevertheless, the narrative dictates that the difference between an even playing field and an uneven one is drug use. Only problem with that? It just isn’t so.

Genetics, Nutrition, and Testosterone

There are millions of variables that can give one athlete an advantage over another, and many times more potent than a steroid cycle. There are genetic factors that affect not only strength, size and body composition, but also hand-eye coordination, mechanical advantage, metabolic advantage, resilience, the ability to recover, and plain old raw talent.

There are also environmental advantages that factor into unevening a playing field. Athletes from various countries are many times more worse off nutritionally than others. Typically, countries that support world class athletes do so on the best ingredients. Good nutrition is inarguably the greatest advantage one athlete can have over another.

How is the undernourished athlete from a poor country going to be on the same footing as the athlete from a first world country? That foils any attempt at an even playing field. The notion is ludicrous.

Why is it that the Chicago Bulls front four isn’t made up of 5-foot tall gentlemen with Hispanic last names whose cousins come from the same town in Sinaloa? Was the field even for pro basketball players the day Jordan showed up?

How about sprinters? Every single gold medal sprinter in modern history can trace their roots back to West Africa. The genetic attribute that’s credited to their sprinting ability is the fact that the West Africans have symmetrical knees. A recent study demonstrated how sprinters with symmetrical knees have a distinct advantage over other runners with asymmetrical knees.

How is it that a guy stepping on the field who traces his roots back to the uneven kneed former Czechoslovakia not be at a disadvantage? Clearly, having West African roots (this includes the Jamaicans) is an advantage over every other sprinter in the world. Will banning West Africans even the playing field? No, it will just insure someone else will win, and still probably not a Czech.

Now think of the advantage of natural testosterone production. You have two Olympic weightlifters – one with a testosterone to epi-testosterone ratio (T:E ratio) of 0.25:1, the other at the top with 4:1. Does one have an unfair advantage over the other when it comes to building muscle and strength?

Absolutely! But apparently, this represents an even playing field. To further confound matters, giving the 0.25 guy enough test to bring his levels up to 4:1 would not makes things even (in fact he’d be banned if caught) in spite of the fact that the two would then indeed be even, at least as far as testosterone goes.

Blood Doping and High Altitude Cheating

I suppose the best analogy is blood doping. This is where an endurance advantage is sought by increasing red blood cells and thus positively affecting oxygen delivery to muscle. There are four accepted means of accomplishing this:

  1. The Original Blood Doping: Some days before competition the athlete draws a pint of blood, spins it down to separate the red blood cells from the plasma, re-injects the plasma, and saves the red blood cells to inject the day of competition. This process could be repeated numerous times to “harvest” enough red blood cells for the desired effect.
  2. EPO: Erythropoietin is a drug that makes the body produce more red blood cells, thus increasing oxygen transmission from the lungs to the muscles.
  3. Hypoxic Training or Altitude Training: Ever wonder why the US Olympic training center is in Colorado Springs? Depending on where you are in the complex, you could be at an elevation anywhere between 6,035 feet and as high as 14,110 feet. Training at altitude, or in a manner in which oxygen is restricted, forces the body to adapt to the greater need for oxygen by making more red blood cells to carry more oxygen to muscle.
  4. Hyperbaric Chamber: This is a coffin-like device that’s hooked up to a machine that “thins” the air being sent to it, mimicking the oxygen-depleted air of high altitude. Sleeping in such a chamber will also force the body to produce more red blood cells to facilitate greater oxygen demand.

The intended effect of these modalities is the same: increase red blood cells to carry more oxygen to muscle tissue. The first two are banned; the last two are perfectly acceptable, hence the mile-high US training facility.

It’s this logic that makes the idea of an even playing field absurd. Clearly the athlete training in Colorado Springs is seeking an advantage. But if you train at sea level and use EPO to get a similar hematocrit level as the guys at altitude, you’re seeking an unfair advantage, and if caught, you’ll be prosecuted and banned for a few years.

Big Myths and Big Money

The “even playing field” can also hurt the industry and the spectacle of sport. As soon as fame and money entered sport, the playing field became fair game. And despite the rules and laws against them, using PEDs (and getting away with it) has become as much a part of sport as any other aspect of playing the game.

At the elite level, this means big dollars for not only the athletes, but also the team owners, federations, management, player’s associations, sponsors, and the cottage industries that grow up around sports.

At the height of the steroid scandal in baseball, MLB had its highest grossing year ever. While performance enhancing drugs might not be good for our kids, they are a good and necessary part of the elite sport industry. If they weren’t, there’d be no debate. But no one wants to pay to see worse athletes, and no one wants to earn less money as a result of that.

But so much emphasis has been put on this even playing field nonsense, that congress had to take a stand. And they set out to do what they do best: make sausage.

Certainly, the testimony heard by Congress in the late 80’s, at the behest of Senator Dan Lungren and then Senator Joe Biden, focused some of its attention on the fictitious health dangers of steroids, but the emphasis in passing the Steroid Control Act (the 1990 law which scheduled steroids and handed their control over to the DEA) was focused on what the sports lobby termed the “even playing field” in defining the aspects of fair play that should be incontrovertible in sports.

This message was calculated, and directed toward our nation’s precious youth, who have to be shown that there are no shortcuts to hard work, and there couldn’t possibly be a sensible or healthy way for adult male professional athletes to enhance performance with the use of drugs.

Congress promoted the idea that PEDs are immoral, unethical, unfair, and will make the playing field uneven. The fact that we have laws based on this level of thinking is mystifying. Nevertheless, the idea of the even playing field is so strong we actually have decades-old federal and state laws designed to protect it.

And the media just runs with it. Regardless of the truth about PEDs, you can’t think of a number higher than the amount of times the media has vilified steroids as the de facto assailant of the very tenets of America’s sports and a scourge to the nation’s children.

Throughout the years, hearing after hearing were convened on Capitol Hill, generating tens of thousands of pages of congressional testimony – from the preliminary congressional hearings on steroids, passing the Steroid Control Act, Sentencing Commission hearings, the baseball scandal, Barry Bonds and BALCO. Congress and the media who reports on it have been hammering home the belief that the sanctity of sport finds its foundation on the even playing field and that steroids are a direct assault to the integrity of that foundation.

They believe steroid use is a “national public health crisis.” The men and women in Congress who have taken a stance against this ominous shadow over our youth emerged as heroes to their constituents, cementing their reelection. Not only are we to believe there’s an even playing field, but also that steroids are its anti-American nemesis. The fact that there could never possibly be such thing as an “even playing field” is fundamentally irrelevant.

Senators Lungren and Biden believed that kids should be taught that they’re all equal (a defeatist concept if there ever was one) and that hard work and sportsmanship will bring home the gold. There is no shortcut; the person who works the hardest is the one who will win… although you’re still a winner just for trying.

They promoted the idea that a level playing field is a right – everyone is the same, no one with an advantage over another. Rules were promulgated banning anything that could offer any. Basically, they wanted everyone to equally suck.

And for the adult patrons of sport, a drug-free arena means that the public trust is insured, and that no player will be at a nefarious advantage because he’s using drugs to increase his performance.

To the athlete, steroids were the proverbial talking serpent living in the tree of the forbidden fruit. There’s no doubt that using performance enhancing drugs, particularly the illegal kind, are highly effective and logically part of what can create an athletic advantage. But, does banning these drugs even the field? Ha! Go ahead and inject a bottle of testosterone, put on Mark McGwire’s uniform, and go out and hit 700 homeruns.

You can no more do that than summon a giant white rabbit on the Saturday before Easter to secretly hide colored eggs around the house. Yet we have a law, a failed law at that, that forces elite athletes, who compete for a lot of money and fame, to accept the criminal truth that will inevitably present itself: If you want to win you need to take some shit.

If you don’t believe that more often than not, the elite athlete will take that long dusty road home, then you must email me because I have a wonderful bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

The Sport of Getting Away With It

How exactly does banning drugs make the playing field level? That’s like saying banning forks will cure diabetes. The very basis of enhancing performance rests squarely on the shoulders of creating advantage. A good coach knows a hundred ways of creating advantage in his clients, and some – not all – involve illegal drugs.

A coach puts together his performance-enhancing protocols knowing full well every other coach out there is also cobbling together his method from every single shred of evidence available, in multiple languages, from all over the world. There are many “methods” available today to increase performance that are employed, knowing full well some are banned and illegal.

All “banned” means to many coaches is that they have to use the substance knowing how to foil the test for it, not to avoid using it. Obviously, the banned stuff works, or it wouldn’t be banned! Using it and getting away with it just adds another layer of complexity to the winning formula, as well a political one.

Promoters, federations, leagues, etc. are those responsible for carrying out doping control. The lab sends the results back to them to be either acted upon or swept under the rug. It’s rarely the top performing, most highly promoted athletes that fail their drug tests. It’s more than likely the sacrificial lambs of the third and fourth tier.

But if you’re like most naive Americans, you still believe that the top guys are clean and so good that the third-tier guys can’t catch them even on drugs. How even is the playing field if the top guys are protected? And nowhere in this entire “even playing field” saga has talent and genetic potential ever been discussed.

A playing field is an arena where the best players of any sport set about to prove their talent. From a playing field, the best will emerge. Whatever arena is in question, there will be a set of rules intended to keep competition safe and fair, and those rules are going to get bent. They always do. It’s part of the game. It’s why it needs governing.

However, the idea that you show up to compete without some kind of advantage means you’re probably not going to win, particularly if you’re the lone, tree-hugging snowflake and everyone else is jacked.

The even playing field charade is further exacerbated by the fact that its proposed boundaries are vague at best. A level playing field today is defined as an arena where no one is allowed to use any method to artificially increase performance.

A Broken Idea

The law passed in 1990 was designed to catch cheating athletes. As of today, that’s never happened. The majority of the cases prosecuted under the Steroid Control Act have been against ordinary iron brothers just trying to do their thing, not hurting anybody. But that doesn’t matter. They still go to jail.

There is perhaps no greater injustice than the “justice” served under a broken law. In this case, what’s the result? Does locking up all those users even-out anyone’s playing field? Those guys aren’t even playing sports!

The law, the idea, the concept, the application, and the reality is an abysmal failure. Why? Because it was focused on preserving something that didn’t exist. And if any part of it did exist it would be nebulous at best.

Insulting the even playing field by employing some form of unfair advantage indicates that there’s a form of advantage that must be considered fair. Or else why denote the unfair one?

If this advantage must be banned, then shouldn’t every advantage be banned? Or better yet, how about not ban any advantage? How about believing the truth: there’s no even playing field.

We can go ahead and keep banning every ergogenic aid that comes along. Any drug, any modality, any training method, any material etc., but we’ll never be able to ban our way to an even playing field unless we ban the only true logical detriment to fair play – the athlete.

So, unless you’re going to ban him, you can’t have your level playing field. If just one athlete is involved then the playing field is even. The second another athlete shows up the concept is shot.