Friday, September 21, 2012
Regarding Performance Enhancers
A recent conversation with a friend of mine brought to my mind the issue of performance enhancing drugs when it comes to competition. From using steroids that develop one's body past normal genetic limits to illegally using controlled stimulants to enhance mental performance, it's not exactly news that some folks will try and find an edge wherever they can, even at risk to their own bodies and brains. These are my (slightly disorganized) thoughts on the subject.
First off, everything you do that makes you healthier and more skillful--strictly speaking--enhances your performance. Good nutrition enhances your performance. Sleeping well enhances your performance. And then we move into the realm of supplements, medications, steroids, drugs, etc., where it gets even more complicated. We want to encourage higher standards of competition, so we encourage new training methods, research into optimal nutrition, healthful supplement use, and steroids. Wait, no. Steroids are bad, right?
We can't just use a simple, blanket statement such as "steroids are bad, you may not use steroids or drugs," because there are plenty of reasons NOT related to the competition that somebody might use them. Steroids and human growth hormone, for example, can be used to treat illnesses and deficiencies and recover from injuries. When it comes to mental enhancers, the most pervasive performance enhancer in e-sports is Adderall. Adderall is also a prescription medication that helps people who struggle with ADD/ADHD to function normally outside of the game.
So here's a hypothetical: you may have somebody who struggles with school and work. Their grades are suffering, and they're at odds with their boss when they have difficulty doing their job. A few doctor visits later, they find assistance in the form of Adderall, prescribed by their psychiatrist. And it benefits them, and their grades improve, and they're no longer riding the knife's edge at work. Things are great. This somebody is also--you guessed it--a competitor in some video game or another. And he takes Adderall for competition, because in an arena where reflexes and concentration are so critical, having a disorder that negatively influences your brain function could be quite debilitating.
It's sad but true that it's possible to fake the disorder to get Adderall. On top of that, people sell it outside of their doctors' offices to turn a profit. This is, of course, illegal. And of course, it wouldn't be called a drug if it weren't dangerous when taken in large doses or in combination with other medications. Furthermore, nobody likes losing to somebody because they took a powerful substance that gave them a tremendous edge. So publicly acknowledging you use Adderall, even if you have a legitimate reason, can be bad for your reputation. Then again, so is hiding your use and then being found out.
But clearly one situation is okay, and one is not, right? Because the first person, who uses the medication for legitimate benefit, is doing so because a disorder is placing him at a disadvantage, and the medication evens it out. The second person is trying to gain an unfair advantage by taking the substance illicitly to put himself above other people. In order for others to compete with that, they may have to purchase an expensive psychoactive stimulant. It's typically agreed that this isn't fair... but why isn't it fair?
I'm a fan of breaking situations down to understand root motivations. And in this case we have a few factors:
1) It's illegal to use many of these substances without doctor approval (and in some cases, at all). So you want to break the law, and you might not get caught, but then other people must take the same risk to participate in an otherwise legal competition. Not okay, right?
Laws can change, however. To figure out what your actual stance on something is, pretend it's legal instead, and ask yourself if you're suddenly okay with it. If you are, then the principle motivation you're following is not "it's wrong" but "I don't want to pay fines/go to jail/do community service." Which doesn't have much to do with the spirit of competition.
2) Not everybody has access to stimulants and steroids because--along with potentially being illegal--they're expensive. But money/access isn't really the root, because we also don't discourage people from eating well just because their competitors might be poor. We don't discourage people from taking medicines that will save their lives because others can't afford it. Your coaching is a result of the people available to teach you, your nutrition is a result of available knowledge, etc. These imbalances exist, but we're not fundamentally against good nutrition and training because they aren't universally available.
3) Here we hit the moneymaker; using substances to gain an edge encourages competitors to potentially damage themselves just to maintain an even playing field.
Let's analyze this. All players, by competing in a sport, are mutually agreeing to the risks their game entails. If you play football, you do understand there will be opportunities to get hurt. Through your training you could pull or tear a muscle, while playing you strain your joints, when slamming into burly men who weigh three hundred pounds you might turn into a blood stain and a memory.
So should we emphasize the health risks at all? Isn't it a player's responsibility to care for their body how they choose? And if the goal of training is to create the highest level of ability possible, then why wouldn't you want to use performance enhancers? If somebody refuses to potentially damage themselves to improve their overall fitness/ability regarding the game, why don't we just tell them "find a different game"?
These are good questions. To start with, in order to compete and demonstrate the prowess of your body, you must actually use your body. Using the body always necessitates a risk. So to say "since you're already taking a risk just by being on the field, you might as well shoot up" doesn't quite hold water. We focus on protective padding and rule against fouls and violence to lower risk, to protect competitors, and promote long term ability development and health. Risk exists, but we attempt to minimize it where possible so people can go on competing.
Second, even though I'm usually in favor of encouraging higher standards of competition, that doesn't mean that a higher standard of competition is always better. And I say this is because competition is a relative thing. There's a reason that organizations use weight groups in sports where size is always an advantage; even though you can tell a 5'2" guy to just "get better," it's meaningless when he's fighting somebody 6'3". The second guy will always be bigger, and will always have the massive edge in the competition. There's nothing meaningful when they fight in that context.
Likewise, competition between people who don't use performance enhancers and people who do is favored towards people who do. So encouraging their use creates a new standard and a new norm, meaning the only difference will once again be your nutrition, training, mindset, and genetics. The bottom of the heap may be better than all non-steroid users, but he'll still be unimpressive by the higher competitive standard. The whole point of wanting to use steroids--achieving more for yourself--renders itself moot, and then you're back in the same position. Except now you have prostate cancer.
People may try to counteract this with "it's my body and I can do what I want to." However, if you damage your body and establish a new competitive standard, you are willingly increasing the likelihood that others will do the same to keep up. At which point it's not just your body that you are putting at risk.
It seems to me that the health element is truly the crux of the issue. To demonstrate this, consider caffeine. Caffeine enhances mental performance, for instance; it increases reflexes, mental clarity, and energy. It's not necessary for daily healthy functioning, so it doesn't quite fall in the realm of basic nutrition. Is it okay to establish that, given every endeavor requires focus and concentration, you must ingest an optimal quantity of caffeine at the right time just so you don't hand your competitors an edge?
Caffeine is an important example, because studies show reflexes and concentration improve after a moderate amount of caffeine, but drop as you ingest more. Though the consumer may feel more alert as they consume more, they also are susceptible to anxiety and nervousness, which can inhibit good decision making and concentration. So it's not really in a competitor's interest to consume a level of caffeine that would put them at risk anyhow. In short, when taken optimally it lacks health risk, increases performance, and even has potential medical benefits over time (research is still being done regarding the anti-cancer properties).
So the argument can be made that this puts caffeine into the realm of a nutritional supplement. If you want to ask, "is it fair to demand that every competitor be forced to consume this safe and typically healthy substance to be on an even playing field?" you might as well ask the same thing of eating protein and getting enough sleep.
In the end, provided there is no health risk involved in consuming a substance at a given level, there is no reason to bar competitors from using it. We don't want to encourage competitors to shorten their life spans, damage their bodies (beyond the accepted risk level of physical competitions), or give themselves diseases and dependencies, just so they can stay on an even playing field with everybody else. However, just as we assume that every athlete who has access to good food will try to eat optimally, we can assume that when a supplement has nothing but benefits at appropriate dosages, athletes with access will always use it.
The final question has to do with regulation, and unfortunately, there isn't an easy answer. The answer seems simple at first: test for drugs, and if you test positive without being able to present a prescription, you're out. This would help cut down on people who buy two pills of Adderall XR for a two day competition, and also keep athlete whose doctors prescribed anabolic steroids to recover from injury. But unfortunately, it doesn't take care of people who lie to a psychiatrist to get a prescription for themselves. And in a future where e-sports could actually become large and mainstream, why not just have a team or famous player pay off his doctor? Shady deals and under-the-table activities exist in sports and--for instance--competitive bodybuilding and weight lifting, so it's also important to try and target these issues as e-sports is still developing. Sadly it seems like the only real answer is "do what we do now, but better."
Let's ask ourselves an important question though: why would you want to take dangerous performance enhancers anyhow? The obvious answer is to gain an edge, and win. But why obsess over winning to the point that you would destroy your own body?
We'll pick this up next Tuesday when we go into people compete, why winning matters so much, and whether or not it should. And if you enjoyed today's article, like it, comment on it, or share it with your friends. All active discussion that helps me refine my thoughts further is 100% welcome. I'll see you next time, and thanks for reading.