After reading a blog post which argued in favour of gun rights for women on the basis that most women are unable to physically overpower a man attacking them, I started wondering if a similar argument could be applied to steroid use in sport. When I discuss the merits of women’s sport with friends the same argument inevitably surfaces: why would I bother watching women’s sport when I could watch men’s sport? Men can go faster, higher, and are stronger. Such an argument implies that if female atheltes were able to physically compete at the same standards as male athletes then women’s sport would become more popular. We have the tools do close this gap in physical prowess so why not use them. These tools are not guns, but performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Allowing female athletes to use PEDs whilst continuing to enforce a strict prohibition against their male counterparts using such substances would not only allow women to get closer to male athletes but may see the dawn of mixed gender teams in otherwise male dominated leagues.
What might some objections to such a system be? There are the standard anti-PED arguments about health and fairness. But health can be tested for and regulated so that only safe doses of performance enhancing substances are taken. Fairness on the other hand is a more interesting issue. The first question that springs to mind is: if women can take them why can’t men? If gender equality is what is important then shouldn’t both genders have the same set of rules? The reply to this is an appeal to positive discrimination. Women have always had a raw deal in sport. Not from genetic factors, but from organisational factors. At the ancient Olympics women were banned from even watching the Games less they be executed. In more modern times a series of half-baked medical claims lead to various exclusion form various sports. Nowadays there is very little investment in women’s sport when compared to men’s competitions, which correlates to low interest. I previously argued that the best way to increase the profile of women’s sport was to hold major competitions simultaneously with men’s competitions. However, this was met with the usual objections that “they still won’t be as good as men.” If that is really the issue holding back women’s sport then it seems that allowing women to use PEDs is the best why to address this issue.
Perhaps the most convincing objection to the argument is simply: it wouldn’t work. Whilst it would make women faster and stronger, there are still limits to how fast and how strong they can be, and these limits are below the limits of male athletes, even when clean. No women has ever broken the 10 second barrier in the 100m, and that includes plenty of proven dopers. There are two replies to this objection. The first reply is that they just weren’t using the right PEDs. Indeed, those PEDs might not exist yet. Allowing open use of PEDs will allow better research and better drugs. The most important factor is that scientists will no longer be making drugs that are undetectable. They will be making drugs which are safe, and that will enhance performance. This will make it more likely that at some point down the line the gap will become non-existent. The second reply is that it will allow equality in some sports, not all, and that is something that is worthwhile. Team sports are an area where this could have the biggest impact. You don’t need to be the fastest or strongest person in the world to play team sports at the top level. But you do need to be quite strong and quite fast, quite probably stronger and faster than a natural female physiology will allow. We may never see a woman break the 10 second barrier. But we might see some in the NHL, the NBA, or the English Premier League.