Slavery, Sochi, and Steroids: When Does Competition Go Too Far?


In the Olympics (and sporting in general), it is generally considered wrong for an athlete to take performance-enhancing drugs.

Let us take one step back and ask, Why?

Is there any a priori reason that substances like steroids should be banned? Is eating an athletic diet also “cheating”? What about genetic mutations—wouldn’t it unfair if I have a gene that, given all else equal, allows me to run 20% faster than you?

(These are the conversations I have on Friday nights.)

One main point of the Olympics is to test the limits of what humans can do. Someone ran 100 meters in 9.8 seconds? Awesome! Someone ran it in 9.6? Even better! I want to see that! But suppose someone ran 100 meters in 9.4, but was later tested positive for banned substances. Then who is the fastest person in the world at running 100 meters: athlete 9.6 or athlete 9.4?

It depends, of course, on how we frame the question. If we ask, “What is the fastest valid 100 meter dash in Olympic history?,” the answer is 9.6 seconds. But if we ask instead, “What is the fastest time ever for a 100 meter dash?,” the answer becomes 9.4. It would still be true that the fastest time in which a human ran 100 meters is 9.4 seconds.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that eating an athletic diet makes your time 0.2 seconds faster at the 100-meter dash, and taking illegal substances can also boost the time by 0.2 seconds. Then we might have the following 100-meter times:

Normal Diet Athletic Diet
No Doping 9.8 9.6
Doping 9.6 9.4

In this case, the fastest time is 9.6 because as a society, we agreed on the rules that eating a diet to enhance performance is good, but taking a drug to do so is bad. However, does this mean we are missing out on a possibly faster time, the 9.4?

It is unfair if only one athlete is allowed to use a certain tactic to enhance performance, so let us suppose that we are now looking at the top three finishers, off by 0.1 seconds each. Assume everyone is following the same rules. Here is a the same chart, now showing 1st, 2nd, and 3rd times:

Normal Diet Athletic Diet
No Doping 9.8, 9.9, 10.0 9.6, 9.7, 9.8
Doping 9.6, 9.7, 9.8 9.4, 9.5, 9.6

We can assume that the fastest person is the fastest in all four boxes, the second fastest is second, and so on. Now, we only consider doping to be cheating because it’s agreed upon that it is cheating. Eating an athletic diet, on the other hand, is not considered cheating, so we… don’t consider it to be cheating.

This raises the question, is there any point to these artificial rules? A competition is concerned with relative times and not absolute times (even then, the absolute times are only interesting because we compare them to the absolute times in years past, hence making them again relative times). Under the restrictions of diet or doping, the relative times are all the same. So are the rules simply arbitrary? Should we allow doping because it will reveal the full potential of human beings?

My intuition is no, and there are arguments for and against. One of the immediate objections is that doping is unnatural. But so is eating a diet specifically designed to optimize your athletic performance. So that argument doesn’t quite hold.

One of the more legitimate points is human health. We know that performance-enhancing drugs come with a range of side effects. Let’s say that a regular user of PED’s has their lifespan cut by 1 year. In addition, if PED’s are legalized, then everyone will start using them, because there would be no way to seriously compete without them (like it is futile to compete while on a diet of donuts and soda today). So is it worth shaving 1 year off of every athlete’s life to improve the absolute numbers, which don’t matter, by 0.2 seconds? Obviously not. (Is it obvious?)

However, what about a situation where the “absolute numbers” do matter? Let’s say that an asteroid is headed towards Earth, and all the scientists and engineers with the relevant technical skills are working on how to deflect it. However, they are still working 8 hours a day. Should we be able to force them to go to 10 hours, or 12 hours, or even 16 hours? (Of course, given the gravity of the situation, no pun intended, these people are probably voluntarily willing to work harder anyways, but suppose they are not.) In this scenario, there might be 100 teams with 100 different solutions to deflect the asteroid. The best solution has a 47% chance of success. But if everyone were instead working 16 hours a day, the best solution might have a 70% chance of success. Do we force longer hours?

What about a doctor who is trying to cure cancer? Should this doctor be allowed to use performance-enhancing drugs so that he might have a slightly better shot at the big issue?

And what about capitalism? The free market provides the ultimate competition: your 100-meter speed is now your wealth and status. How far will you go to improve it? Should the government restrict your ability to create wealth?

The title of this post starts with “Slavery,” so what has that got to do with anything? Well, under an “anything goes” structure, allowing slavery might be the only way a country can support a certain level of economic production, perhaps in order to defend itself. This does not have to be an economic slavery—it could be political slavery, or totalitarian rule. Imagine we detect an alien fleet that is just blowing up planets of the solar system and is headed to Earth. Is martial law justified?

And here’s a more realistic issue: Should a country be allowed to do whatever it wants in order to develop? In response to climate change and environmental damage, the developed countries of the world are starting to decrease their pollution levels, particularly of greenhouse gases, by using more renewable energy and being more environmentally aware. Should a developing country be exempt from the rules and be allowed to power itself solely using cheap but environmentally harmful fossil fuels, because it can’t afford renewable energy?

If everybody is sitting in a crowded theater, and you have a really lousy view, should you be allowed to stand up (and take away the view from the person seated behind you)? See this post for similar issues.

In the end, the absolute numbers don’t matter most of the time—it’s the relative that matters.

Credit to Jesse Orshan for this discussion.

4 thoughts on “Slavery, Sochi, and Steroids: When Does Competition Go Too Far?

  1. with regards to steroids, the reason they’re banned is because there are immediately observable negative health impacts. It’s tough to say that about any other intervention (i.e. diet, exercise, etc.) that athletes undergo.


    1. Right. But theoretically, in a competition that you are really interested in winning (depending on what the reward is), it is very conceivable that you might want to damage your own health or make other personal sacrifices in order to win. I see the steroid taboo as more of a result of social norms than as a result of genuine health concerns.


  2. One other thing to note about steroids that is interesting but perhaps not material here is that individual responses vary enormously. So while if you take two athletes on mediocre diets and fine tune them, you’ll probably see a roughly equivalent improvement (better training performance and body composition), that’s not the case with steroids. One person might respond marginally while another could add 20-40 lbs of muscle or recover dramatically more easily. In fact, one of the strongest determinants of success in bodybuilding is how well you respond to steroids.


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