Jeff Mcintosh  /  AP file
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issued skeleton racer Zach Lund a public warning after he failed a drug test.
By contributor
updated 2/26/2006 9:42:01 AM ET 2006-02-26T14:42:01

The Olympics are back. Yes, that time is upon us when you try to figure whether those judging the skating performances are drunk, insane or both, how anyone can really take seriously as athletics any activity involving sweeping with a broom, and which professional hockey player not implicated in a burgeoning betting scandal will be the first to trash his hotel room or wind up taking literally the exhortation to be passionate, which is a part of the philosophical babble that the International Olympic Committee emits every two years.

More familiarly, the return of the Olympics signals a renewed focus on the subject of using drugs and medical science to enhance athletic performance. That's right, doping season is upon us.

The sport that is already in trouble: sledding. The old backyard pastime of tiny tikes in the Northern United States and Canada is in the midst of a moral maelstrom. Who knew letting your kid near a Torpedo Blaster or a Wham-O Snow Luge was the first step in a life of crime? If you have an old Flexible Flyer in your basement, burn it before the kids find it.

In the last Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, doping scandals beset Nordic skiing and cross-country skiing. Recently, skeleton racer Zach Lund, who is from Salt Lake but apparently was not awake during 2002, has been publicly warned by the United States Anti-Doping Agency for using a drug, finasteride, that is a known masking agent for those taking steroids. The World Anti-Doping Agency may not let Zach launch his apparently pharmacologically bulked up frame downhill on his sled during this year's Olympics, even though the Americans are ready to let him compete.

And it is not just doping. The coach of the U.S. skeleton team — you don’t think this activity would be in the games if it was called sledding do you? — has been put on leave due to charges of sexual harassment. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be skeleton players.

Anyway, the biennial outbreak of doping tests, charges, lies and expulsions leads naturally to the question about the ethics of using drugs to improve performance. My view is that it is wrong to use a drug to improve performance if that drug is dangerous, risky or unsafe. Since most drugs have very real risks, it is hard to justify allowing their use simply to go farther on your skis or get downhill faster on your skeleton.

The problem with my position though is that to enforce it you need to be able to test for performance-enhancing drugs. And while the technology for detecting drugs such as steroids has gotten much better over the years, the ability of the drug cheaters to concoct new and stealthier versions of drugs also gets better year after year.

Scientists continue to brew up new chemical stimulants and muscle builders that those trying to keep drugs out of sport have to find new ways to detect.

Slideshow: Taking gold This is a race that the good guys cannot win and some bad guys know that.

At the end of the day it is integrity as much as technology that will keep the Olympics drug-free. But if your coach is charged with sexual harassment, your countrymen only see gold medals as making the competition worthwhile, and if you yourself are competing with one eye on the opposition and the other on your endorsement contract, then integrity is in trouble.

Odd as it may be, it is you and I who determine the extent to which drug doping permeates the Olympics. At the end of the day, if we don't want cheating in the Olympics then we cannot behave as if the one and only goal for each and every athlete is winning a gold medal.

If all the honor, money and celebrity accrue only to those who finish first then no matter what testing is done, athletes will cheat. So while testing for drugs is important, the best antidote to doping is not to create a culture in which only those who finish first count. Not to do so guarantees that there will be a few more Zach Lund skeletons in our national closet before the Turin games are through.

Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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