Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Lance Armstrong Scandal and Drug Prohibition

Champ Lance: Did he beat the system
as well as the competition?
The mounting evidence that cycling superstar Lance Armstrong doped his way to his Tour de France victories certainly says a lot about Armstrong's character.

But it also contains a message about drug prohibition. After all, Armstrong likes to boast that he's the most drug tested athlete in history and that he's never failed a test. And he's certainly lived under lots of scrutiny from the media, competitors and cycling authorities.

Yet, if we believe the testimonies of Armstrong's ex-teammates Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, as well as lots of other evidence, Armstrong doped routinely throughout his racing career, and so did many other top bike racers.

If authorities could not stop a man who lived in the spotlight from using prohibited substances, what's the chance that they can stop the whole population? Especially when performance-enhancing substances like EPO and steroids are much harder to find than heroin, cocaine and marijuana. 

U.S. Postal Service racing team,
featuring Lance Armstrong. A
laboratory creation?
Of course, the factors in favor and against prohibition in sports and the general population are very different. Drugs like cocaine and heroin are banned primarily because of their dangers to users' health and the way they affect people's behavior. But if performance-enhancing drugs dramatically affected health or behavior, they wouldn't work for athletes in the first place.

If police and judges simply decriminalize drugs, use will likely increase, and some users will enjoy themselves and others will wreck their health. But law enforcement costs and lots of other damaging impacts, such as the funding of criminal organizations, will decrease.

Will the best doper win?
On the other hand, if sports authorities just give up and allow unrestricted use of performance boosters, it could undermine the very nature of sports. Instead of competing by training and strategy, athletes will outdo each other by using more expensive and sophisticated laboratory techniques.

Of course, it's always possible that, against all evidence, Armstrong is clean, as he has always insisted, and that there's a huge conspiracy against him. But that wouldn't change much, since it's clear that the sport is packed full of cheaters.

Just imagine Real Madrid defeating Barcelona in a dramatic match, and the reporters rushing to interview, instead of the coaches and players, laboratory technicians, who analyze the substances each teams' players used.

'Well, Barcelona injected themselves with Substance A, which made them run faster. But Real Madrid popped B pills, which made them stronger. Next time, Barcelona had better take the pills - or both drugs."

Prohibitionism doesn't seem to work wherever it's tried. Do the arguments in its favor outweigh those against it?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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