Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Doping and Anti-doping in Sport

  • Dennis Hemphill
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_73


Doping in sport is recognized as a crisis within government, academic, professional, and media circles worldwide. Doping, which can include performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids, growth hormones, and amphetamines, is considered to be a significant threat to the integrity of sport because it undermines the fairness of contests, the health of athletes, as well as sport’s character/team building and role model function for society. The public good at stake in sport is thought to be so high as to warrant preventative education programs, but also increasingly tougher penalties and broader policing powers.

There are a number of key arguments and counterarguments in the philosophy of sport and sociology literature on the topic of doping and doping control, which have been critically discussed at length in Hemphill (2009) and are summarized in this entry.

Anti-doping Arguments in Sport


On this account, sport is thought to be the testing of natural abilities, and performance-enhancing drugs and methods (PEDMs) should be banned because they introduce synthetic, foreign substances, or even one’s reinfused oxygen rich blood, into the body to help produce training adaptations or performance enhancements that could not be achieved otherwise. However, there is an inconsistency by singling out drugs for prohibition when there is a range of “unnatural,” yet acceptable, performance enhancers in sport. That is, in sport, as in daily life, performance is routinely aided by substances (e.g., caffeine, vitamin supplements) or by prosthetic devices that can be considered artificial and external to the athlete (Brown 1980; Lavin 1995; Roberts and Hemphill 1988; cited in Hemphill 2009).


On this account, PEDMs should be banned because the use of a prohibited substance is cheating, that is, gives the user an unfair advantage over other athletes. PEDM rule violations not only change the conditions of play without consent, but they undermine the “level playing field,” that is, relatively balanced conditions of play. However, the fairness argument is also thought to be inconsistent because there are many advantages that favor the performance prospects of some athletes over others, yet remain unquestioned (Brown 1980; Parry URL; Simon 1995; Roberts and Hemphill 1988; cited in Hemphill 2009). For example, some athletes are born with a preponderance of fast-twitch fibers, which give these athletes a natural advantage over those with less of them. More significant is the fact that some athletes have access to more funding, better facilities and equipment, as well as to greater coaching and other sport science support.


On this view, PEDMs should be banned because they pose significant short- and/or long-term health hazards to athletes. However, it may be inappropriate to judge athletes by a standard of health thought to be more appropriate to a “normal” population (Brown 1980; cited in Hemphill 2009). That is, athletes are already “abnormal” in terms of their performance aspirations and what risks, hardships, and injuries they are prepared to accept and overcome in their quest for sporting excellence. Moreover, it appears inconsistent to single out PEDMs for exclusion when there are a range of acceptable short- and long-term injury and health risks associated with sports participation.

Harm to Others

On this account, athletes who use PEDMs should be banned because they coerce or force other athletes to break the rules and risk their short- or long-term health just to remain competitive. In addition, adult PEDM use in sport should be prohibited on the grounds that adult athletes are influential role models for young athletes who, in turn, may make uninformed choices about PEDM use. However, it is not clear why PEDMs should be banned when other competitive pressures (e.g., weight training, high-tech equipment) are not (Roberts and Hemphill 1988; Simon 1995; Tamburrini 2000; cited in Hemphill 2009). It also seems inconsistent to ban PEDMs when there are other adult behaviors (e.g., alcohol consumption, poor diet) that may also set a bad example to children (Roberts and Hemphill 1988; Simon 1995; Tamburrini 2000; cited in Hemphill 2009).

There are basically three courses of action to deal with the logical inconsistencies laid out above. The first is to ban any and all performance aids (e.g., technology, facilities, coaching) that are considered unnatural, unfair, unhealthy, or cause harm to others. The second is to provide universal access to any and all performance aids so as to level the playing field (Brown 1980; Savulescu et al. 2004; cited in Hemphill 2009). However, both options would likely be too expensive and impractical for implementation. The third option is to make a special case for why PEDMs should be banned when there are so many other acceptable performance enhancers that may be unnatural, unhealthy, unfair, or cause harm to others.

In spite of these conceptual and logical problems, there still appears to be “pervasive disapproval” of PEDMs in sport (Lavin 1995; cited in Hemphill 2009). The following sections will summarize additional ethical arguments as to why this may be the case.

Respect for Persons

On this account, PEDM use in sport undermines personal autonomy and responsibility. That is, PEDM use should be condemned because it is seen as a crutch or as a shortcut that diminishes self-reliance, hard work, and perseverance (Pound 2005; cited in Hemphill 2009). Moreover, PEDM use can also undermine the ideal of competition, conceptualized as a mutually challenging quest for excellence between persons (Simon 1985, 1995; cited in Hemphill 2009). While the outcome of a sport competition can be influenced by luck or injury, there is still a significant value attached by athletes, spectators, and other stakeholders to the link between success and personal effort. Competition, then, should involve the disclosing and testing of the athletic and tactical prowess of an athlete in response to the valuable challenges served up by the opponent, not their responses to, say, performance-enhancing chemical agents.

There is also the opposing view that PEDM use is consistent with the nature of persons and the spirit of sport. For example, by speeding recovery from training fatigue or injury, PEDMs may permit athletes to train more frequently, for longer periods of time, and with more intensity. PEDM use can be seen as consistent with the Olympic ethos of “faster, higher, stronger”, and several authors argue that PEDM use is consistent with the human drive to expand capacities, self-knowledge, and freedom (Brown 1980; Konig 1995; Shogan 1999; Savulescu et al. 2004; Tamburrini 2006; cited in Hemphill 2009).

However, when PEDM bans are enforced on informed and consenting adults, it seems to disrespect them, that is, deny in adults the very feature of self-determination that is valued and expected of them as “persons.” On this account, if athletes weigh up the pros and cons of PEDM use and make a voluntary choice, external interference with their freedom of choice seems unwarranted (Simon 1995; cited in Hemphill 2009). There is one qualification to the respect for persons argument. PEDM bans are warranted in the case of children who, due to lack of education and experience, are not fully aware of the consequences of their action (Brown 1995; cited in Hemphill 2009). In other words, soft paternalism is warranted where it can be shown that a person cannot make a voluntary, informed choice.

The notion of respect for persons has some normative force. However, when applied to the doping control issue, this individualistic notion of what it means to be a person renders two seemingly contradictory results. On the one hand, the appeal to self-determination makes the use of PEDMs appear as a prop that diminishes personal effort and responsibility. On the other hand, the appeal to self-determination suggests also that restricting the voluntary and informed choice of adult athletes when it comes to PEDM use is ethically questionable (Hemphill 2009). The following section will summarize a practice conception of personhood and its implications for understanding anti-PEDM arguments.

Practice Goods and Virtues

To speak about sport as a practice is to see it as a cooperative social activity that promotes the pursuit and achievement of goods and virtues internal to the activity (MacIntyre 1984; cited in Hemphill 2009). Internal goods are the shared standards of technical, ethical, or aesthetic excellence, while virtues refer to valued traits or dispositions (e.g., trying to win, courage). On this account, winning at all costs, including the use of banned PEDMs, is unacceptable. Winning in sport has value not simply because of the external rewards (e.g., fame and fortune) it can generate for champions, but because it stands for excellence in a valued community form of life.

While standards of excellence and virtues are sport specific, and may undergo historical shifts, they are thought to provide an internal framework for judging when an individual action is thought to be acceptable or when it is considered cheating or unsporting. On this cultural relativist-tending position, out the window goes the view that there is anything like a universal notion of personhood or timeless ideal of competition that can settle the issue once and for all about legitimacy of PEDM use in sport. Rather, the practice goods need to be seen more as a historically grounded, but no less powerful, set of collective sentiments or widely accepted beliefs about what sport is or what it should be (Burke 1997; Burke and Roberts 1997, Lavin 1995; cited in Hemphill 2009).

The appeal to collective sentiments and democratic preferences goes some way to making a special case for sport in terms of the “pervasive disapproval” of banned PEDMs and overcoming the ethical inconsistencies cited above. In other words, the sentimental attachment to notions such as fairness, health, and the link between success and effort is still strong enough to uphold the view that PEDMs are largely antithetical to sport.

War on Doping

Government and sporting authorities have gone to extraordinary lengths to increase penalties and expand policing powers to uphold integrity in sport. It is often propped up by the rhetoric of war, which can stigmatize dopers, highlight the righteousness of the anti-doping campaign, and justifying the firm resolve and forceful measures required for its success (Lakoff and Johnson 1980; Scarry 1985; Lakoff 2003; Dingelstad et al. 1996; cited in Hemphill 2009). This section summarizes some of the ethical costs of the “war” and “fight” metaphors.

Some of “collateral damage” of the “war” is thought to relate to the loss of athlete rights to privacy, as when athletes must submit to witnessed urine sample collection, year-round random drug testing, as well as report their whereabouts to drug testing authorities when traveling (Thompson 1995; Schneider 2004; cited in Hemphill 2009). The policy of strict liability means that athletes are “guilty until proven innocent” if found with drugs in their body, regardless of intent. Fairness is also at issue when sport authorities replace the legal precept of “beyond reasonable doubt” with “comfortable satisfaction,” thus lowering the standard of evidence required to charge and convict athletes (Morgan 2006; Burke 2005; cited in Hemphill 2009). In a view shared by Savulescu et al. (2004; cited in Hemphill 2009), Tamburrini (2006; cited in Hemphill 2009) suggests that global doping sanctions allow for no gradations of guilt or responsibility; a doped athlete from a poor country coerced into using drugs by a totalitarian government is treated the same as a doped athlete from a wealthy country who has access to a wide range of legal performance-enhancing substances, methods, and other resources.

Further to this, Houlihan (2004; cited in Hemphill 2009) argues that athletes are marginalized in the debate by sport authorities who (falsely) presume that athletes’ interests correspond to that of sport governing bodies. Moreover, the war can stifle debate on alternative strategies for drug control (e.g., harm minimization), suppress research on safe performance-enhancing drugs, or reduce the autonomy of national or local sport institutions to develop policies that suit their particular traditions and conventions (Dinglestad et al. 1996; Tamburrini 2000; cited in Hemphill 2009).

Normalizing PEDM Use

There is an alternative way of looking at doping use and control. This final section covers a view that focuses less on athlete responsibility and culpability and more on the impact of high-performance sport culture.

To set the scene, it is not difficult to understand the institutional pressures, expectations, and enticements of elite, professional sport. Mass media, government, and commercial investments in sport accentuate the monetary or publicity benefits of sporting success and raise the expectations for players and all those involved in managing, sponsoring, and watching sport. On this view, as the commercial value of sporting success increases so too do the temptations for players, coaches and managers, and sponsors to employ dubious means (Hemphill 2009).

However, the choice to use PEDMs may not pose a moral dilemma for many athletes. Athletes operate in a sporting culture where the expectations, norms, and incentives to enhance performance are already in place. Several authors have discussed how athletes can be socialized into a high-performance sport culture (Roberts and Hemphill 1988; Houlihan 1999; cited in Hemphill 2009). When socialized into a culture that fosters trust and reliance on the expert knowledge and methods provided by coaches, physiologists, doctors, psychologists, nutritionists, and a host of other sport science professionals, athletes may see PEDMs as consistent with the sporting culture of performance.

This raises a number of interesting issues. For one, PEDM rule violations may represent less of a moral failure on the part of athletes and more of a culture shift within sport that normalizes PEDM use. Athletes over-socialized into a culture of performance enhancement can make sport seem akin to a syndicate performance, with outcomes less attributable to individual effort and increasingly to a host of external performance-enhancing substances, methods and sport science, and management personnel. As a result, it is questionable to what extent individual athletes are solely responsible and culpable for PEDM rule infractions.


There still appears to be a widespread disapproval of doping in sport, which seems to fuel global efforts to control it by harsher penalties for athletes (and now for support personnel), more sophisticated testing protocols, increased surveillance techniques, as well as information sharing between law enforcement agencies to stem supply. All of this comes at a cost, financially and in terms of athlete rights. It is not clear whether the hard-line approach to achieve pure sport is sustainable, and there is a growing body of knowledge suggesting that other doping control approaches (e.g., harm minimization) might be worth exploring. The increasing use and apparent normalization of performance and appearance enhancing substances and methods in work and everyday life, plus the growth of gene technology, is also making it difficult to insulate sport from PEDM use. Doping and its control is a complex issue, and there is no doubt that competing social interests and values will continue to jostle and nudge each other in the conversation to define sport and how it should be played.


  1. Hemphill, D. (2009). Performance enhancement and drug control in sport: Ethical considerations. Sport in Society, 12(3), 313–326. doi:10.1080/17430430802673668.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Australia 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Victoria UniversityMelbourneAustralia