Doping, Blade Running, and Wheelchair Basketball

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

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67 Responses

  1. Ethan Gach says:

    I man, just in evolutionary terms, where the body ends and artificial tools begins is arbitrary, and somewhat up for debate (aren’t fingernails tools, in so far as they are developed to serve a certain function?)

    Sullivan of course can’t wander that far though because, per is faith, what appears to be arbitrary must at some point up the chain become necessary, inevitable, providence, etc.

    So where as Sullivan might not find the claim that human beings’ current forms, and the variation among those forms, is somehow “natural” or “intentional,” the rest of us are left wondering how at some point something that’s arbitrary becomes non-arbitrary, whether this is the fact that I have larger feet or the fact that I have feet at all.Report

  2. Glyph says:

    “It’s a minority of people who are born 6’6?”

    Boy, I sure hope so 🙂Report

  3. M.A. says:

    If Oscar Pistorius’s abilities are suspect, then so too are the abilities of any baseball pitcher who’s had laser surgery for corrective vision.Report

  4. Tod Kelly says:

    I am unsure where I come down on Pistorius, as it seems a complicated shade of gray. (Though regardless, what he has accomplished is nothing less than remarkable.)

    I think the issue here isn’t really one of “fairness,” not exactly – though that is the easiest single word to put my finger on. Kobe Bryant going one-on-one with Smush Parker isn’t “fair;” neither is Ali in his prime vs. some guy that was never ranked. “Fair” has nothing to do with it.

    Instead, we watch sports in part because we want to see a concise visualization of human achievement, unfolding before our eyes. Seeing Kobe Bryant score 81 was special; watching Tiger Woods tear through tournaments as a newly minted pro was special; watching Kurt Gibson beat the odds and the A’s with a bum leg and a heavy dose of grit was special. Even if you’re rooting against them, witnessing their achievements was – to choose an overused word in its proper context – inspiring.

    But in order to witness this achievement, there always has to be a baseline from which everyone agrees to start. WIthout that baseline, the achievements become meaningless. Michael Jordan wasn’t the tallest, fastest or most purely athletic person on the court ever; watching him overcome all of those deficiencies, over and over again, was breathtaking. But it was only so because when he walked out onto the hardwood, he was starting from the same place as the other 23 men suited up. If he were given springs on his shoes so that he could jump the highest, or extensions to his arms to block shots more effectively, he might well have had better statistics – but his accomplishments would have been tarnished, and we would not have cared to witness them (expect perhaps out of a quick curiosity).

    The reason that wheelchair basketball is not diminished is that all the players on the court start from that baseline. The reason that wearing cleats does not diminish a relay runner is that everyone on that track starts from that same baseline advantage.

    For those that aren’t into sports, I offer this analogy: You punish the guy that uses steroids for the exact same reason you punish the high school student that has snuck a smart phone into the SAT testing facility and is using it to up his score. It doesn’t matter that certain kids are naturally bighter than others, or that some come from better schools. or had better teachers, or are better at test taking – it only means something if everyone starts the test – at that moment when you’re asked to read silently while the tester reads aloud – starts from the exact same baseline.

    (That was long. I should have made this a post.)Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Pistorius is a great runner, plain and simple. But he was a lot easier to support before he whined his competitor’s prostheses.Report

    • zic in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      He can’t be the only double-amputee runner using this gear.

      Do the others compete at his level, or are his skills superior?

      We have several friends who work to help people with adaptive skiing. The ingenuity, and the technology available both inspires and awes. I’ve watched volunteers spend tens of hours fine tuning gear so that a little kid could have one run down the mountain; one chance to feel like they can fly.

      If this guy can fly, all the power too him. And if he can fly a little faster then the good ‘ol boys? All the better.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Tod, but Pistorius isn’t someone with feet and springs attached. Those are his feet.

      What might end up happening is that running could be dominated by double amputees. Is that unfair?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        In that case, what are the ethical implications of needing to amputate one’s legs in order to compete at the elite level?Report

        • trumwill mobile in reply to James Hanley says:


        • Rose Woodhouse in reply to James Hanley says:

          Willing amputations is a terribly interesting issue:

          To prevent it, though, just make a rule that there had to be a medical reason for the amputation. Maybe people would cheat, I don’t know.Report

          • Chris in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

            This makes amputations almost exactly like PEDs, then: you have to have a “valid” medical reason in order to get them. “validity” of the medical reason will be determined by a doctor. Doctors will be able to find “valid” medical reasons for willing clients. Suddenly, a hell of a lot of runners have prosthetic limbs.

            The scary thing is the possibility that this happens (which I think is pretty much inevitable, actually, if people with artificial limbs start to win most or all races) and then the sporting authorities, freaked out by this, ban artificial limbs.Report

            • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Chris says:

              So far, a large majority of docs have been fairly unwilling to amputate healthy limbs for Body Integration Identity Disorder. I mean, PEDs are one thing, chopping off a limb is another. You have to wonder, too, how many runners will be willing to go through with it.Report

              • Chris in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

                Rose, at first, I imagine not many, but as it becomes clear that one simply cannot compete without artificial limbs, I expect 2 things will happen:

                1) A non-trivial number of athletes will elect to undergo non-medically necessary amputations in order to compete.
                2) The amount of money involved will create a market for doctors who are willing to amputate legs when there is no valid medical reason to do so, and that market will quickly become saturated.Report

              • zic in reply to Chris says:

                I can see a market for those amputated limbs, too. Replacement parts for those without or with injured.

                hmmm. (I wrote 1/2 of a novel with this as the theme; place where you always had to worry about being attacked by limb stealers. Should have finished it; but I got distracted by my children.)

                As mcmegan often says, markets in everything.Report

              • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Chris says:

                Well, there is the difference from PEDs that you can’t hide your amputated limbs. There will be much more immediate public scrutiny.Report

              • trumwill mobile in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

                Also, you can stop taking the PEDs, but can’t easily reattach your legs. Chris alludes to this, but I’d add the potential malpractice liability. An athlete later claiming that there was coercion involved.Report

              • Chris in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

                True, but once only athletes with artificial limbs are winning all the races, I’m not sure this is a distinction people are going to care about. In fact, I’m not even sure how it could be considered cheating, because holding naturally-limbed athletes to a standard that disadvantages them significantly would seem unfair to pretty much everyone. We’d probably all be horrified at the results though, and again, I suspect we’d start banning artificial limbs altogether. Or we’d make it possible for those without artificial limbs to use some other sort of limb enhancement (shoes that have similar spring, for example, or however the physics of it works out). Either way, it’s going to be an arms race (sorry, I know there’s a bad pun in there, but it is unintended), just like performance enhancing drugs.Report

            • Jonathan McLeod in reply to Chris says:

              That’s how Canada tried to split the difference on abortion. It didn’t really work.Report

      • Chris in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Related question: should men be able to compete in women’s sports? What about transgenders?Report

    • M.A. in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      The reason that wheelchair basketball is not diminished is that all the players on the court start from that baseline.

      I know a couple guys who participate in a wheelchair basketball league. They’re not disabled/differently-abled/whatever-the-term-is, but they know some people who are and thought it would be fun to participate and spend time on “equal ground” so to speak.

      What you’ll probably find humorous is that for their first few months of playing, they kept commenting about how the regular wheelchair players were kicking their butts. Some of those guys spend all day working their arms and get quite buff in the upper-body sense, far more so than the part-timers who get around most of the day by legpower.Report

  5. Steve S. says:

    I find it strange that in all these discussions it rarely seems to come up that using PEDs is against the rules. Now, I’m no prude and maybe even a bit of an anarchist when it comes to political matters, but sports have all sorts of arbitrary rules that nevertheless get enforced.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Steve S. says:

      This is an excellent point. Both the basic point, and the point that people don’t bring the basic point up.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Steve, mentioned in the last paragraph of the OP.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        My students will often come to me…

        “Mr. Kazzy! Jimmy is cheating!”
        “What game are you playing?”
        “What game is Jimmy playing?”
        “Are you and Jimmy playing together?”
        “Are you playing the same game of Bey-Blades?”
        “Did you agree to follow the same rules?”
        “Well, it is only cheating if someone isn’t following rules that everyone agreed to. If you and Jimmy haven’t talked about the game your playing and the rules, than he isn’t cheating. You might not even be playing the same game.”
        [blank stare… runs off..]
        “Hey guys! Jimmy isn’t cheating!”
        “Cool!” “Yea!” “Wahoo!”

        * I don’t give my kids Bey-Blades, but they enjoy constructing them out of various manipulatives in the classroom. Some teachers frown on this, but it is actually pretty cool to see them attempt to design an ideal Blade. They have to consider balance, construction strength, duration of spin, coolness of design, etc. Sorta like a soap box derby… BUT WITH BATTLE TOPS!Report

        • dhex in reply to Kazzy says:

          so bey-blades are anime dreidels?Report

          • Kazzy in reply to dhex says:

            Heh… In a way. At least the way they play in my class. Which actually seems more fun than the real toy (kids have brought them in for show-and-tell).

            My favorite part is tha many kids thnk they ACTUALLY have to yell, “Let it rip!” Or else it won’t spin properly.Report

        • Pierre Corneille in reply to Kazzy says:

          Is there some notion that there is an implied set of rules that everyone agrees on before playing, unless something is stated otherwise? In theory, I find it hard to suggest that there must be a meeting of the minds on every single possible point of dispute that might come up.

          Of course, I’m being a little facetious–and I know nothing about teaching children and don’t mean to imply you’re doing anything wrong–but I do wonder if there is not a default set of rules. (For the records, I have never heard of bey-blades.)Report

    • Mo in reply to Steve S. says:

      For most of the steroid era, it wasn’t against the rules to use PEDs.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mo says:

        For the entire time people like McGwire, Canseco, A-Rod, Bonds, and Clemens are supposed to have been juicing, it wasn’t against the rules in baseball. That’s why A-Rod wasn’t suspended for his positive test.

        Performance-enhancing drugs are as old as sport, and I have absolutely no ethical problem with using them if everyone can use them.

        What made Lance’s use a betrayal was less that he used them, even though they were against the rules, but that he was so ruthless in his attacks on the people who told the truth about his PED use.Report

        • trumwill mobile in reply to Chris says:

          I’m pretty sure ARod wasn’t suspended because the test he took was supposed to be anonymous.Report

        • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

          I saw this on Dangerous Minds – musician Tim Burgess on Lance Armstrong:

          Can’t we give Lance Armstrong a break? I tried riding a bike once on drugs. If anything it was a lot harder. I was in a hedge within seconds.


      • Steve S. in reply to Mo says:

        False. MLB has had a policy against use of drugs without a valid prescription for decades.Report

        • Mo in reply to Steve S. says:

          Then explain amphetamines being widely available in clubhouses starting in the 60s.Report

          • Mike Schilling in reply to Mo says:

            They didn’t ask “Is this within policy?”.Report

          • Steve S. in reply to Mo says:

            What’s that got to do with anything? The question is whether they were breaking the rules.

            Google up Bowie Kuhn’s 1971 drug policy. More importantly, think about how silly the argument is, “my company doesn’t specifically prohibit me from using Drug X without a prescription, therefore it’s OK.”

            Then perform the experiment of listing all the baseball players who, at the time, proudly announced, “hell yeah I’m using steroids, what’s the big deal?” Not admitting to it to sell a book, or when the issue was safely in the rear-view mirror, but at the time.Report

      • M.A. in reply to Mo says:

        For all of the steroid era, it was illegal to use PEDs without prescription. And every baseball contract has stipulations for punishment if players commit crimes and reflect negatively on the sport.Report

  6. Michael Drew says:

    I completely agree that the problem is more to do with how drug use squares with the aim of the activity itself rather than fairness. As long as PEDs are banned, yes, there’s an unfairness that cheaters will prosper so long as not caught. But that’s an artificial unfairness created by the ban in the first place. Get rid of the ban, and the sport simply becomes partly about who can best manage the drug cocktail best suited to their body chemistry’s max-perfomance needs. One could argue that economic factors would then govern the drug advantage – but the problem with that is that economic factors already govern various competitive advantages in sport – from equipment to facilities to coaching to the simple question of whether an athlete must have a day job or not.

    No, the question is whether we simply regard the use of these chemicals as conceptually anathema to the sporting endeavor. I don’t have an opinion on that. I don’t think there’s a good reason that we couldn’t just say that it isn’t and that’s the new definition of sport, but I don’t think there’s an unavoidable argument that that would change sport to something else entirely that’s not sport and that we don’t want to have take sport’s place. It’s just sort of up to us. The unbearable lightness of roids.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:


      I don’t think there’s a good reason that we have to say that it (legalizing PED use) isn’t conceptually anathema to sport and/or that it should just become part of the new definition of sport, but I don’t think there’s an unavoidable argument that that would change sport to something else entirely that’s not sport and that we don’t want to have take sport’s place, either. We just have to decide what we want sport to be.Report

  7. Michael Drew says:

    On mechanical enhancements, I do think that R does raise an interesting theoretical question – at what point is the human simply not doing the sporting activity? But it’s not really a practical concern at all, in my view, at least not yet. I.e., in his pitching machine example, what if a brilliant mechanical designer built a pitching machine that could break all the pitching records, but he also had a dream of being – or calling himself – the greatest (by statistical records) baseball pitcher of all time. Say baseball changed its rules radically such that any mechanical enhancements at all could be used to aid in the pitching game only. So this guy gets signed up with a team, and starts just wheeling his machine out to the mound and stands next to it while it mowed down 27 straight batters every game for 25 years. Except, the thing is, he insists, and baseball agrees, that he mowed them down. The machine aided him in doing so.

    We’d want to say he didn’t, and that he never engaged in any sport – only brilliant mechanical design. That situation would be nothing like wheelchair basketball or Pistorius’ prostheses (or high-tech golf clubs for that matter), but we could imagine cases between these extremes. It seems like we may, depending on the evolution of technology and of thinking in sports governance, eventually need a way (or ways) to define participation in sport (or particular sports) such that we’ll know when a person using a particular mechanical enhancement to excel in a sport is in fact still participating in that sport as a valid human participant rather than as someone who has developed or acquired a technology that could aid a person in manipulating the elements of the sport such that the sport is being excelled at, but not necessarily by the person as we imagine the intent of the inventors of the sport would indicate (allowing for modifications to their intent).

    Now, we won’t need this for individual sports to be able to continue on as technology progresses. They’ll just do what they’ve always done and make determinations sport-by-sport, technology-by-technology, case-by-case. But if we want to make meta-judgements of those judgements to allow us to analyze the co-evolution of sport and technology,then we may need that.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Michael Drew says:

      Yes, I agree, and I elided the issue. I haven’t thought about the issue much, but offhand I’d say it does have something to do necessarily with bodily effort. That that’s where the source of achievement lies. Not unaided by technology, but it must spring from bodily effort. For example, a wheelchair rave between manually powered wheelchairs seems legit, a race between power wheelchairs seems pointless.. Actually, I’ll update the post, I think. Thanks.Report