Br J Sports Med 38:666-670 doi:10.1136/bjsm.2003.005249
  • Performance enhancing drugs
  • Leader

Why we should allow performance enhancing drugs in sport

  1. J Savulescu1,
  2. B Foddy2,
  3. M Clayton2
  1. 1Uehiro Chair of Practical Ethics, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  2. 2Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  1. Correspondence to:
 Professor Savulescu
 Flat 2, 3 Bradmore Road, Oxford OX2 6QW, UK;

    The legalisation of drugs in sport may be fairer and safer

    In 490 BC, the Persian Army landed on the plain of Marathon, 25 miles from Athens. The Athenians sent a messenger named Feidipides to Sparta to ask for help. He ran the 150 miles in two days. The Spartans were late. The Athenians attacked and, although outnumbered five to one, were victorious. Feidipides was sent to run back to Athens to report victory. On arrival, he screamed “We won” and dropped dead from exhaustion.

    The marathon was run in the first modern Olympics in 1896, and in many ways the athletic ideal of modern athletes is inspired by the myth of the marathon. Their ideal is superhuman performance, at any cost.


    The use of performance enhancing drugs in the modern Olympics is on record as early as the games of the third Olympiad, when Thomas Hicks won the marathon after receiving an injection of strychnine in the middle of the race.1 The first official ban on “stimulating substances” by a sporting organisation was introduced by the International Amateur Athletic Federation in 1928.2

    Using drugs to cheat in sport is not new, but it is becoming more effective. In 1976, the East German swimming team won 11 out of 13 Olympic events, and later sued the government for giving them anabolic steroids.3 Yet despite the health risks, and despite the regulating bodies’ attempts to eliminate drugs from sport, the use of illegal substances is widely known to be rife. It hardly raises an eyebrow now when some famous athlete fails a dope test.

    In 1992, Vicky Rabinowicz interviewed small groups of athletes. She found that Olympic athletes, in general, believed that most successful athletes were using banned substances.4

    Much of the writing on the use of …