April 20, 2024

Paralympic cheats: is pain a drug?

Hi there,

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The London Paralympic Games have brought to light their own bioethics conundrum. Some able-bodied athletes take painkillers to boost their performance; some disabled athletes inflict pain to boost theirs.

In a shady practice called boosting, quadriplegic and paraplegic sportsmen do things as bizarre as sitting on sharp objects, sticking pins in testicles, filling their bladders to the bursting point or even breaking toes with a hammer. Apparently this raises their blood pressure and gives them a competitive edge. It is terribly dangerous but very hard to detect.

Self-harm puts a new twist on the debate over drug use in sports. Supporters of unrestricted drug use argue that this would level the playing field; if everyone is using them, no one is unfairly disadvantaged. As for the dangers, they say that sportsmen and women understand the risks and have medical supervision.

But does it make sense to talk about unfair disadvantage in a sport for disadvantaged people? Is it ethical to inflict pain and endure mutilation even if you cannot feel it? Doesn’t the very existence of the practice show that some athletes, at least, have more competitive spirit than common sense? Are they really capable of giving informed consent to “boosting”? Lots of questions. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Comments, anyone?

Michael Cook
The bizarre practice of boosting at the London Paralympic Games.