The recent Tour de France melted down day-by-day as yet another race leader left the race facing accusations of doping. We still aren’t sure who won last year’s race, as the inquiry regarding Floyd Landis’s alleged cheating is still pending. And in baseball, Barry Bonds has passed Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record amidst a drumbeat of rumors that his performance has been enhanced by steroids. We seem to be at something of a crossroads: we can enhance athletes, but will that improve competition itself? It won’t: my pills will match your pills, so the games themselves won’t change, but pill-popping will saddle our heroes with a lifetime of possible medical problems.
Both the Tour de France and Barry Bonds cases are about defining the rules of competition in the game and how we move from one set of rules to another. Barry Bonds can lift weights morning, noon and night and no one will think less of him; indeed we will admire his dedication to his craft. But if he dopes, should we think less of him? Or should we think that the next stage in sports competition leaves the gym and heads, appropriately, to the laboratory? Let the best steroid win?
We should reject that idea, and to see that, we need to understand when competition is and is not valuable. In the economy, competition is the lifeblood of capitalism. Firms compete, and if all goes well, they come up with great new products that consumers love. Over time, competition pushes benefits to consumers, even if it doesn’t bolster firm profits. Competitors don’t want competition, consumers do.
In sports, competition is defined and is done so to make the sport entertaining. To make it a good game. If pitchers get too far ahead of hitters, we lower the mound by five inches, as baseball did in 1969, to reduce the number of 2-1 pitcher’s duels. We give the teams with the worst records the highest draft choices, not because of an in-born sense of charity, but because we want to try to maintain competitive balance in the league.
We should look at lab-enhanced sports in that light. We won’t improve competition much and we may make the players much worse off. If hitters on steroids are matched by pitchers with Tommy John surgery, the game may be exactly the same as it would be otherwise, but the players suffer. Competition over physical enhancements can be offsetting in the way that matters most: how entertaining the sport is. If every rider in the peleton is doping in the Tour de France, the race may move a tad faster, but the art and excitement of the race—I am told there is such a thing—won’t change. The race is about the breakaways and the efforts of the other riders to reel in the brave front group, and those don’t depend on raw speed. They depend on relative speed, and that doesn’t change with or without doping, so long as everyone is playing by the same rules.
That is the key point. One rider—one hitter—can gain an advantage over the competition if he—and, critically, he alone—plays by different rules. But if every player dopes, the competitive advantage goes away, and we are back where we started, except now the players are burdened with the presumed medical harms of the doping drugs. Competition over enhancements puts pressure on honest players to cheat or risk becoming outmoded, and yet the game or the race will end up as before if every player starts popping pills. The players, facing a lifetime of potential harms from the doping, will be much worse off.
Equipment in sports has improved dramatically. When I was a kid, I remember finding a couple of old wooden tennis rackets buried in the closet. Those were worth a laugh, just as my kids now giggle over my T-2000 (I do play with a newer racket now). Equipment improvements may challenge the game and force modifications—especially of golf courses—but they don’t put the players themselves at risk.
We can now improve the ultimate sports equipment, the human body itself. We could do what they do with soft drinks, perhaps have two-baseball leagues, Human Classic and New Human (or would that be Human 2.0)? But competition would look much the same in both leagues, as each enhancement would be matched with a competing enhancement. If one enhancement actually provided a decisive advantage, we would reset the rules, as baseball did in lowering the mound, as we want our sports to be competitive. Pill-popping competition will make each player worse off and yet will add nothing to the game. That is competition we can and should do without.
[This appeared in today's Chicago Tribune.]