Performance-enhancing drugs and winning

There’s no level playing field in the sports world. Some athletes have the advantage of speed, strength or jumping ability over others. They won the genetic lottery at birth, and if they work hard, they reap the benefits until age or injury take them down.

Among elite athletes, they call it the 2 percent difference. Former professional cyclist Jonathan Vaughters, writing in the New York Times recently, described the narrow gap between good and great this way:

“In elite athletics, 2 percent of time or power or strength is an eternity. It is the difference in time between running 100 meters in 9.8 seconds and 10 seconds. In swimming, it’s between first and ninth place in the 100-meter breaststroke. And in the Tour de France, 2 percent is the difference between first and 100th place in overall time.”

Elite athletes who pursue their dream of greatness are pretty equal in their dedication, perseverance and work ethic, Vaughters said. But bridging the final gap is such a leap that the temptation to use performance-enhancing drugs becomes powerful. Unfortunately, such drugs work, Vaughter said, and if they aren’t regulated, athletes who abstain can kiss their dreams goodbye.

Vaughters raced in the 1990s and early 2000s when drug enforcement was lax. He was ambitious, “a trait we, as a society, generally admire. I had worked  for more than half my life for one thing.” Competing in a pro cycling world filled with cheaters who easily circumvented the rules, Vaughters said, forced him to make a hard choice. “I chose to lie over killing my dream. I chose to dope.”

While Vaughters paints a compelling picture of why some athletes use drugs, his call for strict regulation to create “a level playing field without doping” doesn’t seem logical. The 2 percent difference between good and great performers isn’t caused by drug use.  Drugs are used to narrow the talent gap. We’re not all born with the natural talent of a Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps.

The use of performance-enhancing drugs in athletics is a symptom of our competitive society. We honor and reward those who win. Those who don’t win the genetic lottery should still have a shot at being all they can be. That is the American way.

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