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My racing shoes have springs because my legs are less bouncy.

August 21, 2008, 7:45 am

From the Atlantic, an article defending the use of beta blockers as performance-enhancing drugs. An article, which, I have to say, only shores up my belief that academics need to play more sports.

Beta blockers reduce the physical effects of nervousness. The reason the North Korean shooter who has been stripped of the gold took them is that a tiny tremble can mean the difference between gold and missing the target. Elliott argues that the beta blocker simply levels the playing field*; why should people who feel more nervous lose simply because they tremble?

What Elliott doesn’t understand is that not trembling is arguably the entire physical challenge in target shooting. The mental game is important in many sports, but it’s the entirety of shooting. The pistol is not terribly heavy. One does not need the strength to throw the bullet at the target. Shooters learn to squeeze the trigger slowly, to calm their racing pulse, and remain perfectly still. The beta blocker might as well be a wooden rest given the benefit it provides.

Arguing that they’re not performance enhancing is rather like arguing that since I swim much slower than Michael Phelps, I should get to use flippers. Or an outboard motor. Or that steroids are okay, because why should a weightlifter with a good work ethic lose out just because he can’t build muscle?**

The beta blockers only look innocuous because Elliot doesn’t understand the game.

Update: And this is just weird, on rereading.

In a sport like basketball, where a player’s performance in public under pressure is critical to the game, taking a drug that improves public performance under pressure would feel like cheating. So the question for pistol shooting is this: should we reward the shooter who can hit the target most accurately, or the one who can hit it most accurately under pressure in public?

Now that makes no sense at all. It would be cheating to take a beta blocker in basketball to reduce the effect of pressure, but not in a sport that is 90% mental.


*Not clear, from the article. It seems like people who don’t feel nervous, but are nevertheless steadied, gain a performance advantage, too. His argument seemed to depend on distinguishing eliminating nervousness (bad) from eliminating the effects of nervousness (permissible.)

**If we want to allow doping, that’s a separate issue. It’s just that there’s no principled way to distinguish between banning steroids and permitting beta blockers. And we’re certainly not going to claim that steroids have no enhancing effect, because even a philosopher can understand the performance effects of being stronger.

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