Why are Steroids Banned in Competitive Sports?

Well? This may seem a pointless question to ask, but it’s actually quite an interesting one. The answer isn’t “Because it’s cheating”. “Because it’s cheating” is not an answer; it’s a rewording of the question. Cheating means “Doing something which is banned”. To answer the question “Why are steroids banned?” with an answer equivalent to “Because we banned taking steroids” is the equivalent of treading water. It’s like answering the question “Why is the door shut?” with “Because it isn’t open”. We are still no closer to a meaningful answer.

A less pointless answer is “Because it gives people an unfair advantage”. Though less pointless, it is still wrong. That’s not the reason taking steroids is banned, it’s actually a result of steroids being banned. The advantage steroids would give a current athlete is only unfair because other athletes don’t take steroids. And why don’t they take steroids? Because they’re banned. If steroids were not banned, presumably there would be some sort of mad arms race by professional athletes to take them. As long as steroids are legal and there are some athletes taking them, everyone else will also have to do so or risk losing a massive competitive edge. The result of this cannot be called unfair though. If everyone becomes ultra-jacked, and waddles about unable to put their arms down fully, we have simply reached a new equilibrium. It’s a strange fact that when everyone does something unfair, that thing ceases to be unfair. It’s unfair to bring a gun to a knife fight. It is not, however, unfair to bring a gun to a knife fight where everyone else has also brought guns.

An argument could be made that steroids would disproportionately benefit already rich sports clubs. Even if that’s true, I doubt the effect would be greater than the other advantages wealth already brings in sport. Advantages which, at least in this country, we’re happy to tolerate. In football, for example, money brings better facilities, better coaches, better physios, medical staff, sports scientists and so on. If anything, steroids would make great strides towards levelling the playing field. Comparing say, Manchester City and Burton Albion, we can see just what an advantage money brings to the table already. Manchester City have millions of pounds channeled into training facilities, gym equipment and staff to keep their players in peak physical condition. Burton Albion could never dream of such an expense. Whilst Kelechi Iheanacho gets to work out on a state of the art exercise machine, wired up to more heart rate and vital statistics monitors than owned by the entire NHS, coked up on isotonic sports drinks and a specifically tailored nutrient diet, Kyle McFadzean can only jog around some brightly coloured cones in the Derbyshire drizzle. This advantage could be wiped out in one fell swoop by legalizing steroids. Suddenly scores of sports doctors are forced back into a resentful health service, whilst millions of pounds’ worth of gym equipment lies derelict. Chelsea get knocked out of the FA cup following a hat-trick by Stalybridge Celtic’s 400lb centre forward. Lionel Messi, his diminutive frame unsuited to such a development, is no longer able to keep up and gets signed on a free by Port Vale. If anything, the ensuing anarchy would see an unprecedented explosion in the fortune of small clubs.

But despite all of this, why is it we still think steroids should be banned? The answer can, I think, be traced to two main sources. First of all, we appreciate suffering. There is a part of every human which is fundamentally unhappy with the idea of gain without pain. One of the few things that makes jealously over the incredible lifestyle of many athletes bearable is the knowledge that, from the age of about 8, they have been rigorously and painstakingly drilled and chiselled into their sport’s conception of the perfect human. Mario Goetze’s late winner in the world cup final would mean a lot less if his preparation for the game had been injecting drugs, lifting weights for 10 minutes and then heading off for a nap. The pain we know he went through makes it mean all that much more. At the same time, the sight of those dejected Argentines, their faces wet with tears and their hearts broken, is so much more fascinating in light of the time and effort they invested in trying to avoid what just happened. The drama is so much more intense because we know that Carlos Tevez, retirement creeping ever closer, spent so much of his life before the final in the gym and on the training field, preparing to avenge his nation’s humiliation by German feet 4 years previously. Football is a game about characters and, as far as character goes, steroids can never be a replacement for blood, sweat and tears. Nothing destroys the heartwarming tale of “the boy from the estate turned good” more than the knowledge that the “turning” process consisted of pumping an obscene quantity of drugs into his arms, thighs and torso.

The other factor is resemblance. Regardless of how finely tuned the bodies of top tier footballers are, the game still recognizably takes place between two sets of human beings. Wayne Rooney might be on the verge of a £40 billion a week contract in China, but he’s really not that different from you and I. If he never made it in football, no one would think he looked out of place behind a bar or as a taxi driver. As long as this remains the case, it will be possible to empathize with sportspeople. This is why it’s quite difficult to form an empathetic bond with WWE wrestlers. I’ve never met a man who looks like Hulk Hogan, and I cannot imagine any circumstances under which I would come to resemble him. As far as I’m concerned, he’s a member of a different species. The gutted expression on Wazza’s face when he misses a penalty is so much more interesting because we can imagine either being him, or him being someone we don’t like, depending on our feelings towards his club. The furious howl of the Undertaker as the seventh chair of the evening is smashed over his forehead might be amusing to watch, but it’s not an emotionally moving experience. Now, imagine 22 Undertakers kicking a ball around a field. It just isn’t the same. Don’t get me wrong, I would pay to watch it at least once, but I can’t imagine it taking on the kind of soap drama come religion status that football and other sports have.

So there we have it. The next time one of your friends starts spouting off about “cheating sportsmen”, feel free to alienate everyone in the room by presenting a needlessly long argument about how the only cheating that matters is cheating fans out of a dramatic emotional experience. And the next time you hoot with laughter as a member of a rival team turns the ball into his own net, be sure to savour just how large a percentage of his life has been dedicated to preventing that very incident.


2 thoughts on “Why are Steroids Banned in Competitive Sports?

  1. I feel an important reason why steroids are banned that you fail to touch upon, is in relation to the fact that athletic achievement is only authentic when it is sufficiently “natural”. In other words, people are impressed by athletes insofar as that achievement represents the effort of the athlete to draw out that sporting potential from their natural human body. Athletes taking is steroids is therefore unfair insofar as it augments their body giving them greater potential over what is naturally possible. I do think this is problematic insofar as it needs an effective distinction between “natural potential” and “artificial augmentation”. For example food could be said to enhance our athletic potential, but I don’t think anyone is going to claim an athlete cheated because they ate chicken as opposed to pork. Worse still “natural potential” arguably differs from person to person depending on both obviously “natural factors” i.e. inherited traits but also less clear-cut factors such as one’s diet and lifestyle when they are being brought up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s true but it’s strongly related to what I was trying to get at in the “no pain, no gain” bit. And a bit of the resemblance point.

      Why is it natural potential impressive whereas artificial augmentation isn’t? I think ultimately your answer has to be along the lines of the former taking dedication, hard work etc. whereas the latter is easy. The other element is the fact that it’s a natural human body producing these impressive feats, but then I think that’s a similar category of point to the one in the penultimate paragraph, i.e. you recognise an organism basically identical to you and see it doing remarkable things. I suppose this is impressive because you know your limitations and how hard it would be for you to do the same, which makes you appreciate the talent whoever you’re watching must have (as their biological starting hand wasn’t too dissimilar).

      Oh yeah, I almost forgot, fuck off Barnaby.


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