I recently re-watched one of my favourite 90s, half-cartoon, sports movies, Space Jam. I’m sure I don’t need to recount the plot of Michael Jordan being sucked into the Looney Tunes universe in order to help them win a basketball game so that they can avoid becoming slaves. It is one of the all time classics after all. But one particular scene really stuck out to me, in the scene Bugs Bunny implies that a bottle of water, which he labels ‘Michael Jordan’s secret stuff’, has performance-enhancing qualities. The rest of the team eagerly drink the special formula in order to improve their performance (which it does for a time).
This raises a host of questions around the attitude towards steroid use in the Looney Tunes universe and in Michael Jordan’s career. But that is not what I want to discuss today. What I find more interesting is the role of placebos in performance enhancement. This 2007 study found that placebos could have a performance-enhancing effect on athletes. The study concerned consisted of athletes taking morphine in the weeks leading up to competition then taking a placebo on the day of competition would had morphine-like effects on those involved (a greater pain tolerance is something that would prove useful in a variety of sports). As the article points out this does not violate any anti-doping rules, but should it?
One possible thing to consider is intent. Consider a scenario where an athlete seeks out a banned substance and their coach administers them a placebo which then has performance-enhancing effects on the athlete’s performance. In such a scenario one might be inclined to judge the athlete guilty. But my instincts are that the athletes guilt is connected with their conspiracy to use performance-enhancing drugs, as opposed to the act itself. Now consider a scenario like Space Jam, it’s half time, the team is down, and a coach goes up to her star player, gives her a pill and says “Take this, it will give you a boost of energy, and help you focus.” The athlete takes the pill unquestioning and feels it’s effects as the coach promises, they are faster, and sharper and lead their team to victory in the second half. If the pill were simply a placebo have the player or the coach done anything wrong? For all the player knew the coach was giving her amphetamine.
Performance-enhancing placebos are commonplace in sport, the superstitions and rituals that many players perform before and during matches are all part of putting the athlete in a mental state conducive to success. There is also a huge pseudo-scientific performance-enhancement industry that surrounds sport with a new holographic bracelet, or miracle supplement popping up every few years that promises to improve strength or balance. If the person using it has a strong belief it will work then the placebo effect can come into play.