Heroes and Villains: Part 1 – PEDs


Peter Robertson Heroes and Villains - PED's Header Photo

One of the most divided discussions in world sport is whether or not to legalise Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs). We all love to see the absolute best performances possible and revel in the setting of new world records and extreme performances. Advocates state that use of PEDs is already rampant within our ‘I want it now’ society. They argue that legalisation and acceptance is the only way to create a ‘level playing field’, prohibition has never really worked, and that life isn’t fair anyway. The other sides maintain that performances achieved via drugs isn’t really good sport anymore.

Why should we care so much about PEDs when a new training or recovery regime, diet, advances in technology and equipment, or even visualisation and meditation techniques have achieved significant performance breakthroughs in the past?

Lance Armstrong provided one of the most intriguing events in the PED saga when we discovered that he had deceived us all and was exposed as a drug cheat. The image that we all had of a heroic cancer survivor who battled his way back to the top of world sport through sheer guts and determination was in fact sleight of hand. The irony of the fact that his recovery from testicular cancer would have only been made possible by a debilitating cocktail of chemotherapy drugs should not be lost on anyone. However, it was the candour of his repeated prior public denials that destroyed his supporters. A friend of mine who is an oncologist and avid cyclist, had a number of original and valuable pieces of Lance Armstrong memorabilia. Positioned in his waiting room to inspire his patients to hopefully overcome the mental challenge of their illness, the pieces were suddenly made worthless and were promptly removed to the basement as they could no longer do their job. Of course we subsequently found that evidence of Armstrong’s win-at-all-costs mentality were everywhere as he bludgeoned his way past anyone who stood in his way.

Along the way, use of PEDs had even found their way into club cycling and those naivetés amongst us were forced to wonder what was real and what was not in the world of cycling. My oncologist friend commented about the potential medical dangers of PEDs and reminded me of the epic tragedies of Flo Jo; or Tom Simpson who, fuelled by amphetamines and a drug enhanced desire to win at all costs, collapsed and died ascending Mont Ventoux in the 1960s Tour de France. The medical consequences of PED legalisation for elite sportspeople and their extensive support teams are surely uncertain enough. However, normalisation and habitual use within everyday club sport is potentially even more dangerous.

Our reactions to drug cheats speak volumes about what we value. According to Yale psychologist Paul Bloom and his colleagues, we don’t just respond to things as we see them but our reactions reflect our underlying beliefs. For instance, scientific studies have shown that wine actually does taste better if poured from an expensive and exclusive bottle that we believe is superior. When it comes to art, like fine wine, philosopher Dennis Dutton proposes that ‘the value of an artwork is rooted in assumptions about the human performance underlying its creation’. It seems that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is more than a cute saying. It is rooted in neurology.

For many of us, authenticity is more important than the outcome or object itself. Avid art collector, Herman Goering owned a painting by the 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer that was purchased at great cost and that he loved above all others. Whilst on trial for his horrific war crimes, a self-assured Goering was informed that his most favourite of possessions was in fact a forgery. In a moment of pure irony, his biographer reported that ‘he looked as if for the first time that he had discovered that there was evil in the world’. He killed himself soon after.

If we value art based on the authenticity of the human investment it represents, people and objects based on how we perceive them, then surely the same concepts apply to sports. Understanding the physical and mental challenges of any sport allows us to appreciate mastery. Does this explain in part why we value extreme sporting performances so highly and why the use of PEDs poses such a conundrum? For some, the destination is valued more than the journey to get there, and for others it’s the opposite.

One must also concede that the debate bears some striking parallels with the professional/amateur debates of the 19th and 20th centuries and that money is perhaps a key performance enhancing device of its own. Indeed, the massive shift in the reward structure of success may be encouraging risk taking in other areas. I think that PED use amongst elite sportspeople can in part be explained by the classic risk/reward quotient. However, this is harder to understand at club level where the rewards are probably low and the sum of risks is potentially quite high.

When it comes to match-fixing, I doubt that there is any Australian who would argue that match-fixing should be legalised. Inexorably linked to gambling, match fixing has been going on for centuries. The relevance of the great race-fixing scandals that coincided with the Gaming and Betting Act 1906 and whether these events precipitated the collapse of sculling as a premier spectator sport in this country is well debated.

It has been suggested that 25% of world sport is now controlled by organised crime and match-fixing has been described by some as the number one threat to sport’s integrity. No doubt of particular interest to a burgeoning online gambling industry, there seems to be is a united approach and acceptance towards tackling the problem, a unison made easier when such a villain as organised crime can be imagined.

I would argue that PEDs present just another form of match-fixing. For me, the discovery that the achievements of an athlete have been achieved via illicit use of PEDs destroys my underlying beliefs in what those achievements represent – the combination of hard work, commitment, skill and resilience. I concede that this is perhaps a tenuous line to draw at times. However, I feel that legalisation and wholesale use of PEDs would ultimately destroy the authenticity of competitive sports and its attraction to players, spectators and sponsors. But it really boils down to what you value…

P.S. I don’t listen to Milli Vanilli either.

About Peter Robertson

Born and bred in Eumundi and Nambour, in strong company indeed. After studying Maths and Physics at uni in Brisbane, I pursued a business career that I sometimes worry is best described as 'Jack of all trades - master of none'. Having safely made it to my mid 50's, I am still yet to have a real job - but I expect to grow up someday. My love of sport has never waned and I regularly play tennis, golf and surf. Other pursuits include fly fishing and trekking. I have been serving on a few private and NFP boards in sports and other areas to keep me out of mischief.


  1. Dave Brown says

    Interesting read thanks Peter. Yep, I think there are a number of compelling cases against the use of PEDs. The concept of athletes regularly dropping dead on sports fields around the world being one of them. When I think of the Lance Armstrong era of cycling and the pervading ‘everyone was doing it’ attitude that is probably mostly correct I think of the people that chose not to cheat and were denied the career recognition they deserved.

  2. Robbo

    Very interesting and look forward to reading more. I like the strands weaving from sport to art and culture in general.

    I’d be interested on your take as to what PED is. I am interested in the concept of things that aid performance and where does that stop.

    If I am unwell I can legitimately take something that will aid my performance, that could be a drug or pain killing injection, but is permissible. Where does the concept of an unfair advantage stop and start. Clearly, blood doping and the like is beyond the pale, but what’s the difference between enhancing my performance through a legal drug and PED?


  3. Thanks for the great comments. I agree that the line is blurry at times, however, I am guessing that the key would be that there is a line – just like there is a rule that you can’t bowl over crease. One would hope that an assessment of the health risks is implicit in the decision to ban a certain drug. One that probably is not in that category would be beta-blockers for golfers, but use of beta blcokers is not viewed as being in the spirit of the game.

    I can also see how the ‘everybody is doing it’ issue can become a out of control bushfire, as non-PED users find themselves slipping behind.

    I am guessing that this issue will rattle around forever but I also found the contradictions interesting as I wrote the article.

  4. Provocative and thoughtful as always PR. I find myself coming to the PED issue from the same point of view as with illegal drugs in society. For a long time I favoured legalisation and harm minimisation. Now the more I see the corrosive damage done across society and within families, I don’t want to see such destruction normalised. So my conclusion is the same as yours and for similar reasons.
    Sean raises a lot of important issues about where we draw the line between things that are and aren’t legal/acceptable. At the line they are often only a hair’s breadth removed from each other. I remember reading what a naturally low heart rate Bjorn Borg had, which gave him a huge endurance benefit. But do I want people across all levels of sporting taking beta blockers to mimic that?
    You are right that money has a major corrupting effect, but ego and peer regard are just as powerful. So we see PED’s in all level of sport down to junior footy teams ‘juiced up’ on Red Bull. Believe me it happens.
    Not a world I want to be part of.

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