The Ethics of Performance Enhancement

What’s the right thing to do?


Photos Pexels

A Tale of Two Runners

At a training camp, two runners of similar fitness are preparing for an upcoming half-marathon. Both adhere strictly to similar diets and training regimes as dictated by their coach.

On race day, Thomas, who suffers from narcolepsy (a disabling neurological disorder), consumes a quarter tablet of modafinil as prescribed by his medical doctor. For Thomas, modafinil is essential in managing the risks of uncontrollable and debilitating daytime sleepiness.

Alan, who witnessed Thomas consume the modafinil tablet, prepares himself by drinking an electrolyte solution. He then proceeds to wear special clothing that reduces wind resistance and slips on a pair of high-tech performance running shoes. Thomas, who comes from a humble background, simply donned the event-issued apparel and a beaten but comfortable pair of sneakers.

The race was a hard fought battle between Alan and Thomas from start to end. In a dramatic sprint finish, Thomas beats Alan by a margin of 0.2 seconds and is awarded the championship trophy.

Alan, bitter from his defeat, marches to the race officials and informed them that Thomas consumed a suspicious tablet prior to the start of the race. A subsequent urine test revealed that there were traces of modafinil - a prohibited substance according to World Anti-Doping Agency regulations - in Thomas’ sample. Spurred by this discovery, Alan insists that Thomas be stripped of his title and the prize rightfully awarded to him instead.

“The drug Thomas consumed gave him an unfair performance advantage,” Alan argued, “by awarding him the championship title, the race organisers are not only knowingly disregarding international regulations, they are implicitly endorsing the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs.”

Thomas, now aware that he unintentionally breached the rules, attempts to reason that the modafinil he consumed was a medical prescription required for his wellbeing; he never had any intention to cheat. Thomas also added that Alan donned performance gear that already conferred him a significant advantage over his lesser equipped competitors. As such, he rebutted that Alan too is guilty of unfair performance enhancement.

Assume that you are one of the race officials. Answer the following questions:

(1) What is the right thing to do?

(2) What are the reasons supporting your decision?

 Rules delineate (un)acceptable behaviours

If one is concerned solely with legality, this case would have a straightforward outcome: Thomas should be stripped of his championship title and the award conferred to Alan. Moreover, Thomas would likely be slapped with a competition ban amounting to several years as penance.

Competition rules delineate a set of acceptable behaviours of which players are not permitted to stray from. Rules regulate behaviours in a way that ensure competitions are conducted in a fair manner. If rules are not strictly enforced, what’s stopping athletes from engaging in all manners of unsavoury behaviours to gain advantages over each other? Furthermore, if we are tolerant of athletes skirting the rules at the expense of others, then what’s the point of even having competitions? Without rules, the concept of fairness itself loses its meaning. For such reasons, one may thus assert that rules are meant to be followed regardless of circumstances.

What’s considered as ‘unethical performance enhancement’?

While most would agree that rules are necessary in competitions, the challenge lies in determining what sort of behaviours are permissible. Performance enhancement, in particular, is a tricky issue. Does the act of consuming a drug, as per medical prescription, in order to manage a disabling neurological condition count as unethical performance enhancement? One may argue that being so based on two factors. One, the subject’s locomotive ability is improved through artificial means not shared with other competitors. Two, the means conferred other advantages that the subject would not otherwise have (sharpened senses etc.). Hence, usage of the prescribed medical drug should not be permissible in competitions on the grounds of fair play. Either you follow the rules that apply to everyone equally, or you drop out of the competition entirely.

But this interpretation of performance enhancement is not without problems. First, individuals like Thomas may be born with such disabling afflictions or may inadvertently develop them over the course of their lives. Why should they be penalised for taking measures to achieve some state of normalcy relative to their able-bodied and healthy peers? If fairness constitutes the bedrock of competitions, shouldn’t these athletes be permitted the means to level the playing field? Wouldn’t the denial of such means be considered discrimination?

Second, is Alan himself guilty of engaging in mechanical doping by utilising specialised equipments that may not necessarily be available to those of more modest means? Even if such products are available in the open market, prices and supplies can be controlled in such a way that limits the type of consumers that may purchase them. Consider, for example, how Nike’s elite Alphafly racing shoes retail at approximately $459, with prices rapidly climbing in the aftermarket. While winners are not determined by the shoes they wear, having a pair that has been deliberately engineered to increase running efficiency certainly makes a tangible difference in performance at the competitive level.

In an environment whereby advantages can be bought and sold at the right price, the sting of inequality sharpens between competitors. Given that people of different backgrounds have access to different options (or lack thereof), shouldn’t we then restrict rather than support the use of performance enhancing equipment to preserve a level playing field to the greatest extent possible?

Doing so, however, leads to a slippery slope; one may argue that almost every piece of modern equipment used by athletes today confer some degree of performance enhancing benefit that may not be available to all. The lines are even blurrier when it comes to delineating legal and illegal performance enhancing drugs and treatments (brain stimulation or red light therapy, anyone?)

Should we then go to the extent of mandatory fasting and stripping everyone naked to ensure a fair competition? Most of us would probably reject such controlling measures. But doing so still leaves us in an awkward position:

Where and how should we draw the line between acceptable behaviours and cheating?


Lester started running in 2010 and continues to race whenever opportunities arise. Over the years, he has competed in numerous events ranging from 200m track races to trail ultramarathons. In his spare time, Lester reads widely and goes on microadventures.



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