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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Leave Hingis alone - on tennis and cocaine

Tennis star Martina Hingis has announced her retirement from the game after her routine urine samples tested positive for cocaine at Wimbledon earlier this year. While she denies having used the drug, she says that she cannot face the prospect of a long, uphill battle to clear her name: potentially years of litigation with appeals and counter-appeals. At 27, and troubled by injuries, she already has difficulty playing at the top level of the sport. This positive test is career-ending for her.

I have no view, one way or the other, as to whether Hingis is telling the truth, though it is not immediately apparent how the drug test could be wrong. In her favour, a hair sample was tested on her initiative and apparently showed no sign of cocaine use, but that is not decisive. I don't really want to get into the technicalities of which tests are reliable, what they demonstrate, etc., because it would merely distract from the more important and interesting issue - why do sports authorities test for such drugs as cocaine in any event? I'm going to stick my neck out here and insist that the practice is unjustifiable.

Some drugs have the following properties. First, they genuinely provide competitors with an advantage in sporting competitition. As a result, if one competitor uses such a drug it puts pressure on others to do likewise. Second, they are dangerous to competitors' health. When you combine these two properties, it means that one competitor using such a drug is pressuring other competitors to do something harmful to their health. In those circumstances, it is quite sensible for those involved in the sport to get together to decide that such-and-such a drug will be banned by the sport, and that using it will thereafter be a form of cheating like any other breach of the code's rules to take unfair advantage. A person caught cheating in that way is, indeed, disgraced to exactly the same extent as any other cheat.

It is conceivable, I suppose, that someone very foolish could use cocaine in an attempt to gain an advantage - a rush of energy perhaps - but it is not seriously conceivable that this would be an effective strategy for sporting success. Playing tennis, or any other sport, under the influence of cocaine in no way puts pressure on other players to do so. In fact, the idea that an athlete such as Martina Hingis played at Wimbledon under the influence of cocaine is just laughable. Presumably what is being alleged is that she used the drug for recreational purposes, some time before the tournament, and that the urine samples contained a residue from that recreational use. On those facts, Hingis would have done nothing to have obtained an on-court advantage, and cannot seriously be accused of cheating. She would be no different from anyone else who has used cocaine recreationally - whether a fashion model, a barrister, a filing clerk, or a carpenter. So why is it any of the business of other players, the officials, or the general public?

The fact is that cocaine does not meet the criteria required for being a drug that it makes sense for the sport of tennis to ban. It does not confer any genuine advantage in sporting performance, and its use by one player cannot possibly pressure the other players on the tour to use it (on pain of being disadvantaged in competition).

Cocaine is, of course, illegal. However, that is a different issue. Its illegality is based on considerations that have nothing to do with any performance advantage that it might be thought to give athletes like Martina Hingis. In fact, I am strongly opposed to laws that ban drugs such as cocaine, whose benefits and dangers are well known. It should be up to the individual whether or not the risks are worth the benefits; for the state to make that decision for us by enacting criminal laws is, for a start, offensively, indeed outrageously, paternalistic. More generally, it is yet another case of the state overstepping proper boundaries of good governance by arrogating to itself the authority to decide the nature of a good life.

If someone decides that she wants to lead a life based around heavy (or perhaps cautious, in a case such as that alleged against Hingis) use of party drugs, then fine. He or she is the proper person to make that decision - not the state or some self-righteous electoral majority that supports it. I may not approve, but I'm not going to invoke the coercive power of the state to overrule her decision about what she does with her own life and her own body.

However, even if the laws against cocaine use could be justified, the underlying purpose of drug testing in sport is not to assist the police in invading the bodies of potential criminal suspects (without a warrant or other lawful authorisation). It is merely to ensure that no one in the relevant sport is using drugs in a way that is genuinely cheating. There is no reason to include cocaine - or any other recreational drug with no genuine performance benefit - on a list of substances banned by any sport, and there is no reason to test for it.

I can imagine that somebody might reply with the claim that elite athletes such as Hingis are "role models", and that society as a whole has an interest in ensuring that such people live squeaky-clean lives so that young people who imitate them will be equally squeaky-clean. I find that sort of claim ridiculous.

I'll waive the obvious point, that it is a joke to think that sports stars should be role models for anyone. There is no reason at all to think that somebody who is gifted in hitting a tennis ball, say, should be exemplary in other way - any more than someone who is very good at laying bricks or spraypainting car bodies or typing up legal documents ... or than someone not so good at those things. Still, there is this fatuous belief in our society that sports stars (but not, say, rock stars or highly-paid journalists) should be squeaky-clean models for kids to emulate. So let that go.

But if Martina Hingis discreetly used cocaine for recreational purposes on one or more occasions, some time before Wimbledon, why does it matter? The public, including whatever little girls might be using her as a role model, wouldn't even have known if not for the drug test. I can almost accept that we want sports stars to be discreet about their various vices and foibles (though only almost ... because where does it end? Are we going to insist, for example, that if you are a sports star you must never have a complicated sex life, or that you must never behave in any way whatsoever that the majority would not wish their children to imitate?). But once we start policing even their discreetly-conducted activities that have nothing to do with cheating at their chosen sports, we are overreaching with no justification whatsoever.

If - contrary to her strong denial - Martina Hingis did discreetly use cocaine for recreational purposes, then good luck to her. It was her choice, the drug should not even be illegal and in any event there was no basis for a warrant to test her, she was not cheating against her opponents ... and really this practice of policing athletes for the use of drugs that are not seriously performance enhancing should stop. Sporting bodies should never have gone down that path.

Hingis isn't even my favourite player by a long chalk - though she's matured in recent years, she has sometimes seemed like an immature brat, as with her notorious "half a man" comment about Amelie Mauresmo in 1999 - but she is in no way disgraced by these latest events.

It's her body. She didn't break the rules to gain an unfair advantage over other competitors. At worst, she broke an unjust criminal law.

Leave her alone.


Anonymous said...

Hi Russell, great article. I think the idea that some physically gifted human who gets paid a squillion dollars is supposed to be perfect is insane. The furor about Ben Cousins in the AFL is another point in case. Why must he be any different from many others his age who do drugs? Seems like people enjoy pointing at successful people and bringing them down in the tall poppy way.
I agree too that many drugs that are illegal shouldn't be. When you limit supply you create a market that is inevitably filled by nasty types who could care less about quality and the health of the users. But our beloved Dear Leader Howard, being the US flunky that he is, is "tough on drugs". Unless of course it's taxable alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, etc.
It seems that drugs are arbitrarily banned. Not based on science or an individual's right to do to himself as he pleases.
On question though. Cocaine is a stimulant that acts roughly similar to other stimulants like speed, ritalin, ice, etc. Truckies and US air force pilots use stimulants to concentrate more, feel better, more awake etc. Is it possible that Hingis used it to be "up" for her match? I'm not suggesting this would be a long term success strategy, as being on stimulants causes you not to eat properly and has other deleterious side effects that a professional athlete would need to avoid.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, Brian, I suppose anything is possible, but there's two aspects here.

First, in the real world is it plausible that Hingis would have done such a thing? No.

Her denials aside, it's not implausible that she might have used cocaine as a recreational drug on one or more occasions ... not realising that a drug test might pick up the residue (or, in fact, the traces of chemicals produced in her body in reaction) some time later. What is not plausible is that she would play a tennis match while actually high on cocaine - if only because she would have such a likelihood of being caught. It just doesn't make sense. So, that's the immediate issue of how we should think about Hingis. I find it inconceivable that anything she did actually amounted to cheating.

But second, there's the hypothetical question of whether there would be widespread use of cocaine as a stimulant in the way you describe if it wasn't tested for by sports organisations. I feel slightly less confident about that; I suppose there's some possibility that it could become a problem ... but at the end of the day I'm not buying it. The ban really looks as if it is aimed at catching recreational use of the drug by the players ... and I just cannot see that using cocaine as a performance enhancer would become a prudent strategy in the absence of testing, even if more obviously effective but harmful stimulants were banned. Something like coffee would be a better choice (I seem to recall that caffeine has been totally removed from the forbidden drugs list in sport, even though it is an effective stimulant ... and overuse can be unhealthy, but of course it is not illegal and has no social stigma).

However, if someone who knows more about the technicalities of drug effects wants to come in and correct me - and tell me that a highly technical sport like tennis might be played better by someone who is on a cocaine high - well, it'd be interesting to see it argued. I'm always willing to learn.

I agree with you about Ben Cousins, by the way. I don't care what he does for recreation (assuming it's not violent, for example); he can party with whatever substances he likes, for all I care. It's his body, and he should be free to alter its functioning however he wants, subject to the sorts of exceptions that I discussed in my post.

Blake Stacey said...

A quick perusal of Google Scholar finds this:

Cocaine is notable for distorting the user's perception of reality; for example, an athlete may perceive increased performance and decreased fatigue in the face of actual decreased performance in both strength and endurance activities. Cocaine produces a catecholamine-induced as well as a direct negative effect on glycogenolysis, which affects athletic performance.

Russell Blackford said...

Thanks, Blake. That's a good quote ... so on those facts, some misinformed person might try to take cocaine to obtain a performance advantage, if the drug wasn't tested for, but top athletes would surely know better, and any who were foolish enough to play while high would certainly not create a pressure for others to follow suit. In other words, the rationale for banning, say, steroids does not apply.

The various sports organisations should stop interfering in players' personal lives. They could start by cutting back the banned drugs to those that genuinely meet the rationale I spelled out (and they should, of course, continue to include known effective "masking" substances).

I was expecting a bit more controversy with this post, but I guess I just don't have a lot of moralistic readers.

Blake Stacey said...

I expect you don't. :-)

My mother was a newspaper reporter in small-town Oklahoma, and she told me a story about covering high-school sports, which is a big interest in that area. One evening, she was in the bleachers, reporting on a school's homecoming football game — the biggest occasion of the year which that town saw. During the first half, the home team played horribly, fumbling the ball and missing easy passes. They were trailing badly by the midpoint, but after the halftime show (when the cheerleaders and the school band did their thing) they came back out and rebounded, fighting their way to a narrow victory.

After the game, my mother asked one of the players why their game had been so bad during the first half. Not schooled in the ways of concealing information from reporters, the football player answered, "Well, in the first half, uh. . . We were all really stoned. Coach yelled at us in the locker room all through halftime."

I was also told that writing essays for class assignments while stoned was not a good idea, but I never inquired whether or not that derived from personal experience.

Anonymous said...

I was expecting a bit more controversy with this post, but I guess I just don't have a lot of moralistic readers.
OK, I'll try to satisfy your craving.
You're wrong Blackford! It's against natural law! God didn't intend sport for fun! Sport is supposed to be about a man and a women open to having babies! ....In short drugs = contraception = less christian soldiers = you evil!!!

Hmm. I really suck at moralizing.

Russell Blackford said...

Ha ha, guys! I hope my real-life close friends do read this blog occasionally. I didn't call it the Hellfire Club for nothing - the people I have in mind are all far from moralistic (hey, Jenny, I know you're reading this, but where are Al, Ali, Amanda, Damien, Jack, Janeen, etc., etc., etc. ... you guys are awfully quiet).

Anonymous said...

The various sports organisations should stop interfering in players' personal lives.

It's not always this simple, for example the AFL's players association actually voted to have recreational drug testing, believing that on the "2 strikes you remain anonymous and get education and councilling. 3 strikes and you get named and punished" system is beneficial for the playing group. In this scenario, I can only see how drug testing is better for the players, football clubs, and the sport in general.

Russell Blackford said...


We're talking about recreational drugs here, not drugs with a performance enhancement effect - though I don't think they should be banned either, unless they are objectively dangerous to health and produce such a benefit as to create pressure on everyone if even one person uses them, i.e. if they meet the strict criteria set out in my post. If they are available to everybody, and are not dangerous to health, then where's the problem?

The players can doubtless vote for all sorts of ideas, and the vote may be binding and all that, but that doesn't make them right. We could all vote to invade Sweden, I suppose, but that wouldn't make it good policy. Whether the correct process was followed is a different issue from whether a good outcome was achieved.

clodhopper said...

Yeah. Invade Sweden. Fantastic idea. Full of secular scum bags. Where's my Oozo, Uzi? After I've jacked up I'm gonna twat them all with my tennis racket.

Anonymous said...

The players can doubtless vote for all sorts of ideas, and the vote may be binding and all that, but that doesn't make them right. We could all vote to invade Sweden, I suppose, but that wouldn't make it good policy. Whether the correct process was followed is a different issue from whether a good outcome was achieved.

Right, but invading Sweden affects other people. Surely if your argument for the decriminalisation of recreational drugs uses the line of thought "it is the individuals body" then if all individuals in the room say "we don't want to take drugs, therefore we will vote for random testing" it would follow that it IS a good idea.

Also I am unclear about whether your argument is about being available to everyone AND are dangerous... or available to everyone OR is dangerous.

Are you seriously suggesting that recreational drugs, such as cocaine, are not harmful? From your original post, it seems that you are actually arguing that: yes they are harmful, but there is no pressure on others to take them (like performance enhancing drugs).

Of course I wonder how true this is. It seems that clubs have drug problems, not players. I cannot think of one incident in the past that has involved a lone player. From West Coast Eagles cocaine problems to Carlton's small ecstasy problem, these things happen in groups.

Suppose then, the argument was to be mounted that, in club sports, recreational drugs should be banned because:
a) They can be dangerous
b) Young players joining new clubs will feel the pressure to take them and fit in

Would that be sufficient argument to ban recreational drugs?

Russell Blackford said...

Sorry, Stuart, but you're missing my point. The issue isn't whether someone may feel under social pressure to take some party drug, or whatever. People are under peer group pressure to do all sorts of things all the time. It is not up to my employer to try to protect me against peer group pressure, even if my fellow workers have voted for it.

I'm puzzled as to why you keep suggesting that a vote by the workers on such a thing could make it acceptable. Surely you're as worried as I am about tyranny-of-the-majority issues. That was the point of my Sweden example: whether a policy has majority support is a separate issue from whether it is the right policy.

The point is that some drugs create more than the usual kind of peer group pressure. If a drug really does give a performance enhancement effect, then it's not just a matter of it being "cool" to use the drug. It's a matter of actually being disadvantaged on the field if you don't use it and others do. It's almost like economic coercion.

If such a drug is actually dangerous, then it does make sense to ban it from being part of the sport. That's the rationale for banning the use of anabolic steroids, but it has absolutely nothing to do with recreational drugs like cocaine, ecstasy, marijuana, alcohol, and so on. It's wrong to confuse the two situations, and it makes no rational sense to think of Hingis as a cheat, or disgraced as a player, because she has allegedly used cocaine - though it would make perfectly good sense to think of her that way if she had used, say, anabolic steroids.

That's why we shouldn't moralise about Hingis, or about some AFL player or golfer or water skier or baseball player or anyone else who has used cocaine for recreation. They are not cheats because they get no competitive advantage from using the drug.

Is that clearer?

Anonymous said...

Hi Russell I really like how you took to issue on this. It is suprising to see that no major sports media has questioned Hingis' ban. I actually typed into google search: "Why does tennis ban cocaine?" out of curiousity to see if there were any major news publications that wrote about it. thats how I found your article.

Doesn't anyone else see the controversy here? It just doesn;t make sense to ban Hingis, a inspirational icon who came out of retirement to play amongst the greats of tennis today and hold her own. Banning Hingis for two years is so over the line, but even worse is that five tournaments that she has entered are now wiped out and fork over about $130,000 of her winnings.

I think this is a attempt by Tennis to show the world that it is the most "professional" and most "honorable" sport there is. But in reality, it makes them look like an overeacting parent finding out about a child being caught with marijuana in their own childrens' school system.

Ethnic Food said...

I am very disappointed to know that Hingis was involved in cocaine. However, its good that she admitted it. Thanks for sharing this excellent post