The Dangerous Promise of the Pro-Doping “Enhanced Games”
Legalizing some performance-enhancing drugs might result in less cheating, but at what cost?
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“I am the fastest man in the world. But you’ve never heard of me.” These are the tantalizing opening lines of the promo video for the Enhanced Games, a prospective annual athletic competition slated to take place for the first time in December 2024. The idea is to feature the traditional Olympic disciplines of track and field, swimming, combat sports, gymnastics, and weightlifting without prohibiting the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The man behind this controversial proposal is the Australian litigator Aron D’Souza, who orchestrated Peter Thiel’s successful lawsuit against Gawker Media. This time, the enemy isn’t a muckraking website, but the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agencies—organizations which, in D’Souza’s view, are either irredeemably corrupt or “anti-science.” D’Souza, who is gay, has framed the mission of the Enhanced Games as being analogous to the LGBTQ community’s fight against bigotry. The organization’s logo is strikingly similar to the yellow and blue equal sign of the Human Rights Campaign. The nameless (and fictitious) narrator in the promo video asserts that he is a proud enhanced athlete. “I need your help to come out,” he says. “I need your help to stop hate.”
Why would we want something like the Enhanced Games? When I spoke with Brett Fraser, a former Olympic swimmer for the Cayman Islands who serves as the organization’s “Chief Athletes Officer,” he told me that the idea was to “create a better environment for athletes to perform in.” In practice, this means coming up with more financial incentives for athletes to take part in the Games via a still-to-be-determined profit-sharing model and “allowing the athletes to use science and medicine to enhance their bodies if they choose to do so with clinical supervision.” Fraser repeatedly used the phrase “leveling the playing field” when advocating for this doping-positive stance; the basic idea is that, since some athletes are already using PEDs in secret, why not make drugs legal and hence available to all? Pushing back against the notion that this could result in dangerous orgy of self-medication, Fraser told me that every enhanced athlete would need to have their PED regime approved by the Enhanced Games’ board of doctors and scientists. How that system is supposed to work without some kind of testing to ensure that the athletes are telling the truth about what they are taking remains unclear. For his part, D’Souza (who was not available for an interview with Outside) has frequently defended the idea of the Enhanced Games in libertarian terms, responding to concerns about potentially jeopardizing athlete health with the argument that consenting adults should be free to decide what they choose to consume, without the paternalistic oversight of a governing body. He is fond of the slogan: “My body, my choice.”
I had other questions about the Enhanced Games that Fraser didn’t have an answer for at the moment. He assured me that more would be revealed in the coming weeks. Where will the inaugural event take place? The Enhanced Games is in discussions with several potential venues, including college campuses. How will they make money? The Enhanced Games will be privately funded at first, but has been in conversations with several “large media companies” about media and television rights and has had a lot of interest from a “host of well-known brands” for sponsorships. Have any athletes committed to the inaugural event? The Enhanced Games has allegedly heard from over 500 athletes indicating their support and intention to compete, but no names can be revealed as yet. Will the Enhanced Games actually take place next year? The first Games might end up being more of “an exhibition” where we’ll see a “massive feat” or “very impressive performance.” I’m going to hold off on booking my tickets for now.
It’s tempting to dismiss all of this as a frivolous made-for-social-media stunt that repurposes the jargon of liberal causes in the most cynical way possible. (There’s section on the Enhanced Games website with the heading “Science Is Real.”) Nonetheless, I’d argue that the concept of the Enhanced Games raises some interesting questions about the foundations of our current anti-doping sentiment. When we get angry about dopers, it’s almost always because we believe that honest, clean athletes have been robbed of fair competition. But the Enhanced Games seems to solve that problem at the outset. A scathing article in the Guardian describes the initiative as “an Olympics where cheaters can prosper.” The fallacy here is that if doping is officially permitted then nobody is being deceived. That’s not to say that the Enhanced Games is a wonderful idea, but a cogent challenge can’t only take the line that the project is pernicious because it encourages cheating.
The notion of a dopers Olympics has been around for a long time, both as a punchline and as a serious polemic. As the video for the Enhanced Games made the rounds on Twitter, a few people linked a famous SNL skit from 1988: It’s the “all drug Olympics” and Phil Hartman is a maximally juiced Soviet weightlifter who accidentally rips off both of his arms while trying to clean and jerk 1,500 pounds. Implicit in the joke is the serious critique that embracing performance-enhancing drugs comes with major health risks. For example, there have been numerous studies linking the use of anabolic steroids with premature death in athletes. Bodybuilders, in particular, seem especially at risk for cardiac arrest and other forms of organ failure. Earlier this year, in a cover story for Men’s Health, Arnold Schwarzenegger warned that steroid use in his former sport is totally out of control: “Now people are dying—they’re dying because of overdoses of drugs.”
The former Mr. Universe defends his own steroid use by claiming that he took them under careful medical supervision before they became officially illegal in 1990. This brings up an issue that has been used as an argument for legalizing PEDs: banning potentially dangerous drugs means that the athletes who will nonetheless use them will be disincentivized from seeking medical advice. Likewise, medical professionals will be less able to effectively evaluate the risks when PED use is happening underground. The latter point comes up in 2007 paper by Bengt Kayser, a former professor of sports medicine at the University in Geneva: “In a context of prohibition and penalties for use that discourage scientific assessment of the risks, declaring that doping is dangerous becomes, to some extent, a self-fulfilling prophecy, since doping often happens without proper medical supervision or evidence from sound clinical trials.”
In a 2013 article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine titled “Why We Should Allow Performance Enhancing Drugs in Sport,” Julian Savulescu, a professor of ethics at Oxford University, argues that legalizing some forms of doping would ultimately make elite sports safer. (D’Souza has cited Savulescu’s work as one of the inspirations for the Enhanced Games.) His position is similar to the legalize-and-regulate take on recreational drugs. Current prohibitions on doping haven’t worked; cheating is rampant in elite sport. So why not introduce a more permissive system where drug consumption can be monitored? Rather than advocating for an everything-goes philosophy, Savulescu argues that the most harmful PEDs, like anabolic steroids, should still be banned—but that others, even EPO, should be allowed up to a predetermined threshold. As he sees it, the deciding factor about whether to ban a substance should hinge solely on athlete safety, and not on whether it gives an athlete a competitive advantage. As he puts it: “Performance enhancement is not against the spirit of sport; it is the spirit of sport.”
Needless to say, this is a rather contentious claim—and one that is antithetical to WADA’s ethics code which explicitly states that “drug-enhanced performance is incompatible with athletic and human excellence.” But is there anything more at stake here than competing value judgments about what constitutes genuine athletic performance? When I spoke to Shawn Klein, who is an associate professor in philosophy at Arizona State University and runs a website called The Sports Ethicist, he pointed out that the “spirit of the sport” is a malleable concept, especially since we condone any number of performance enhancers—e.g. super shoes, altitude tents, caffeine—which purists might regard as cheating. Klein also argued that, as with shifting attitudes towards recreational drugs, our aversion to PEDs in sports is largely culturally determined and hence prone to change over time.
While I take his point, I’m a little skeptical of Klein’s analogy between recreational drugs and PEDs. For one thing, the competition incentive of elite sports feels like a crucial difference here. The constant need to push the envelope and find an edge over your opponent means that lifting bans on PEDs would result in a physiological Pandora’s box. Once you allow PEDs, you are effectively mandating that anyone who wants a shot at glory needs to use them.
For sports scientist Ross Tucker, the prospective price of embracing PEDs is less a question of ideology than about the unintended consequences of a sports landscape that “normalizes unethical medical practices.” While he can see the rationale in only banning certain substances and setting “safe” limits on others, Tucker notes that this would be very difficult to implement in practice—not least because our understanding of the effects of certain drugs is based on the highly restrictive limits of the current system. “Once you start going through the drugs to assign them to your ‘banned’ and ‘regulated’ lists (and maybe another list for ‘permitted entirely’), it becomes really difficult to decide what to put on each,” Tucker says. “There are substances that we think are safe, but that’s because they’ve only ever been used in small doses.” Moreover, as Tucker points out, the “regulated” list would invite the same problem for drug testers that we have right now: How do you ensure athletes are staying below the prescribed limit the entire time, and not just on the day that they happened to be tested?
This would, of course, not be an issue at the Enhanced Games. Here, top performers can brag about their awesome drug regimen in post-race interviews and heap praise on the enterprising doctors who managed to turn them into athletic demigods without exploding any of their vital organs in the process. But, back in the real world, which doctor would be willing to take on this level of liability? Tucker, who is a research consultant for World Rugby, told me that many contact sports are having trouble recruiting doctors for in-game concussion analysis because of the potential legal consequences of making a bad assessment. So how likely is it that there will be hordes of doctors lining up to try their hand at a new kind of unrestricted superdoping? As Tucker points out, while there have certainly been medical professionals who were willing to help elite athletes dope in the past, these doctors have had the benefit of needing to fly under the current anti-doping radar. Remove that restriction, and the risk becomes much more acute. “I just can’t see how the medical community could possibly enable the Enhanced Games,” Tucker says.
To some extent, the practical and ethical viability of the Enhanced Games can inspire separate debates. But the medical implications of what’s being proposed represents a clear overlap. Those who criticize the current anti-doping infrastructure are not necessarily wrong, but I think they often underestimate the basic value of deterrence. The fact that we still have dopers doesn’t mean that the current system doesn’t work; the point is that even their transgressions are, to some degree, moderated by the rules. For that reason, the best argument against the Enhanced Games might be something as banal as: better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.