Published June 22, 2004
Eric Cohen is editor of The New Atlantis, a U.S. magazine that deals with technology and ethics issues. He is also the director of the Biotechnology and American Democracy program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a policy-research center in Washington.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Cohen recalled a time when athletes at the Olympics — founded on the ideal of amateur athletics — could be censured for simply having a personal trainer. Now, he noted, most have the benefit of high-technology training and advanced nutrition.
All this, according to Cohen, goes beyond proper food to include dietary supplements and other, more specialized substances. He said he believes it is time for the U.S. sports establishment to make some hard decisions about which substances to permit.
“There’s a puzzling set of questions that we’ve seen in baseball and other sports that have to do with separating the supposedly legal sports-enhancing drugs and the illegal ones,” Cohen said. “As the range of potential performance-enhancing agents expands, which it seems to be doing, the question is: ‘How will we draw the line between what should be allowed and what shouldn’t be? And will some of these technologies become so sophisticated that they become undetectable?'”
As these substances become harder to trace, Cohen said, they will become suspected as the key to athletic success throughout the U.S. sports scene, and not just for professional athletes. He said the use of performance-enhancing drugs apparently is growing among collegiate and high-school athletes.
But Cohen said his studies of doping show that these athletes are not driven by greed for the millions of dollars to be made if they become stars. He said most younger athletes opt for steroids and similar drugs simply to survive in the modern sports arena.
“It’s more about a kind of drive to victory, but it ends up having the perverse consequence in that it makes our athletes less excellent and more dependent,” Cohen said. “And so the people who want to be the best end up being less great than they really might be. They’re actually more like animals than athletes.”
Cohen explained that using steroids may help athletes break records, but that such feats cannot be considered valid athletic accomplishments because they are not, in themselves, solely human.
He argues that most of these drugs should be outlawed because of the damage they can do to the human body. And even without such damage, they should be banned from sports because they are what he calls a “passive” route to achievement.
Despite the growing use of performance-enhancing drugs in the United States, Cohen said he sees no evidence they are more abused in the United States than in any other country, at least at the professional level.
“When you’re talking about the professional levels, if you want [performance-enhancing drugs], you can get them,” Cohen said. “And that’s the same all over the world. People who are at the professional athletic levels — I don’t think there’s much of a difference in the culture of the United States versus the culture of other places.”
But Cohen said he is becoming increasingly troubled that the drugs may poison the future of U.S. sports because of what appears to be their increased use by scholastic athletes.