Topic summary: Sports science

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Sports science

Published November 2016

Whilst sports science is a broad discipline, the central issue identified here concerns the use of performance enhancing techniques (PETs) in sport. It can also involve the study of the impact of sport on health.

Are there recent scientific, legal or social developments?

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) published a new World Anti-Doping Code in 2015, and continues to update its prohibited list. Gene doping, which is the process of altering an athlete’s genetic makeup by injecting DNA, is also receiving attention. It is unclear whether or how widely it is in use, but it is on the WADA prohibited list, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will reportedly use a new test to retroactively check samples from the Rio 2016 Olympics for one type of gene doping.

Are there complex ethical issues?

It is unclear what counts as ‘unacceptable’ enhancement. What is the difference between intense training to enhance your performance, and the use of the latest (permitted) technology, compared to the use of PETs? There is also an apparent lack of consistency in what PETs are prohibited. Understanding why doping is deemed to be ‘wrong’ may be helpful, but it is also unclear: it might, for example, be argued that PETs are unsafe (for example, because they are not subject to ‘standard’ drug trial protocols). Yet safety is a reason in itself to regulate enhancements, and there are other things that are arguably equally as risky that we allow – such as the participation in high contact sports. Another answer might be that enhancements are ‘unnatural’. Being unnatural however does not immediately indicate that something is wrong or bad (neither does being natural indicate that something is right or good – see discussion in Council’s recent project on naturalness). Perhaps it is because PETs bring an unfair advantage to those who use them. But what about the people who have a natural genetic advantage: in what way is that a level playing field? A further answer might appeal to the ‘spirit of sport’, which is a difficult concept to define. Suggestions appeal to the particularly human nature of sport, and the fact that there is a particular skill or strength involved. Defining what is human is difficult, especially when there is a continuous strive to be better. Locating the relevant skill or strength may also be difficult, especially if benchmarks can be moved. This difficulty leads some to argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with PETs, and that PETs should be legalised, but with safety informing regulation. Other issues include the acceptability of retroactive testing, and liability. Should athletes alone take responsibility for doping, or should the medical professional or coach also be (partly) liable? This links with concerns about the role of medical professionals in sports, and the conflict they face between basic medical ethical guidelines and sports environments, identified in the Council’s 2014 Background Paper.

Is there a potential policy impact?

Policy makers need to consider the appropriate response to PETs. There are two contrasting options (as well as the middle ground currently held): PETs could be legalised, and regulated according to different measures (e.g. safety); or could be criminalised, as previously considered. Either option would require changes at an international level, as the UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) body has to adopt WADA’s World Anti-Doping Code. This could be timely as a recent Special National Anti-Doping Organizations (NADO) summit called for an overhaul of WADA. UKAD already has an educational prevention programme which might be furthered, especially considering the cost effectiveness compared to developing and implementing anti-doping testing. The role and responsibilities of medical professionals, particularly in relation to PETs, might also be considered.

Is it a subject of public concern?

There is considerable public interest in sport, and concern about doping, evidenced by the wealth of stories in the media. Spectators are portrayed as being ‘betrayed’ by doping athletes, and there is a concern that young athletes and amateurs will be encouraged to use PETs, e.g. through sports supplements, something that is being monitored by the MHRA.

Is the consideration timely?

The Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games have brought a number of doping scandals to light. An independent report conducted for WADA exposed state-sponsored doping programmes in Russia, leading to a number of athletes being banned and controversy over the handling of the case. Since September 2016 athletes’ confidential data on Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) held by WADA has been released by hackers, calling into question the potential abuse of TUEs and the security of such data. The government has also recently conducted a consultation on the duty of care sport has towards participants.

Can the Council offer a distinctive contribution?

There have been little neutral ethical analyses of the issues surrounding PETs, and so the Council is in a unique position to contribute to the debate. It can offer a platform to research the underlying ethical questions relating to the moral status of enhancements in sport from a neutral perspective. This would form a starting point for (re)considering the more specific questions such as, which enhancements should be banned and how they should be regulated.

Possible future work topics

This is one of the topics that have been suggested as possible project areas for further investigation by the Council. These topic summaries do not aim for comprehensiveness; rather, they are intended to sign-post some of the key considerations and to provide a starting point for discussion. Each summary includes links to relevant publications on the topic.

Possible future work topics are selected and/or revised regularly, following discussions among members of the Future Work Sub-Group and the Council. This set of topic summaries was published in November 2016.

Previous work

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