At the elite level, the difference between being a champion and an also-ran is so miniscule, and yet matters so much, that athletes are pressured to do whatever they can to gain the slightest edge over their competitors. It is reasonable to suspect that gold medals now go not to those who are drug-free, but to those who most successfully refine their drug use for maximum enhancement without detection.
Julian Savulescu proposes that instead of trying to detect whether an athlete has taken drugs, we should focus on measurable indications of whether an athlete is risking his or her health. So, if an athlete has a dangerously high level of red blood cells as a result of taking erythropoietin (EPO), he or she should not be allowed to compete. The issue is the red blood cell count, not the means used to elevate it.
To those who say that this will give drug users an unfair advantage, Savulescu replies that now, without drugs, those with the best genes have an unfair advantage… Setting a maximum level of red blood cells actually levels the playing field by reducing the impact of the genetic lottery. Effort then becomes more important than having the right genes.
This discussion of the value of genes vs effort, and the morality of using drugs to level the genetic field, seems to have parallels with social redistribution. We begin unequal because of genetic differences. Through a system of taxes, subsidies, and other transfers, we redistribute the fruits of effort, genetic talent, and opportunity.
What is interesting is that most people think it is fair to redistribute some of the fruits of talent to the least lucky in society. That is why we have progressive systems of taxation, for instance. But, in the sporting arena, pure talent and opportunity is glorified and there are few serious movements to redistribute the lottery. That’s not to say there isn’t some action, but the call for more equal outcomes in sporting contests clearly not as strong as in economic contests.