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Should Performance Enhancing Drugs in Sport be Legal?

Wednesday 2nd September 2015

Debate Motion
Performance Enhancing Drugs in sport should be legalised
Definition
The ban on substances and techniques for the purpose of enhancing performance in competitive sports should be lifted, with the exception of drugs that are banned by law.
The Speakers
From left to right: 
Sarraa Almahdi and Stephen Hoffman (proposing the motion)
Christian Moore and Deena Be (opposing the motion)
Debate Chair: Tony Koutsoumbos
The Arguments
The Q&A
Analysis
The result of this debate needs to be taken with a pinch of salt as it was clear on the night that many in the audience were passionate sports enthusiasts who felt quite strongly about this topic. However, that is the nature of public debate - not everyone is a blank slate when you talk to them. Everyone has their own opinions and preconceptions and a great debater needs to be ready to deal with these.
The point is: the team proposing the motion did a much better job of arguing their case than the score gives them credit for. But, was there any way they could have convinced the audience otherwise?
The answer to this question lies in the issues the audience chose to focus on during the Q&A. Almost every question and comment was about fairness and setting a good example. Now compare this with the opening arguments deployed by both sides: they are almost exclusively about safety and risk to the athletes' health. To be sure, the team opposing the motion were just as culpable of this as the proposers, but they were not the ones who needed to win the audience over. 
In other words, the real debate we were having was not about whether performance enhancing drugs could be used safely, but whether using them would be a good idea even if you could guarantee their safety.
This raised the question of what should be the guiding principle when deciding which substances and techniques should be allowed and which shouldn't. The fact that all of the drugs in question were otherwise perfectly legal and could easily be obtained over the counter or by prescription made answering this question a lot harder and yet all the more important.
Unfortunately, the debate never really covered that question in much depth and in spite of the audience making it very clear what they thought the guiding principle should be, even the closing speeches after the Q&A focused more on the health risks of using performance enhancing drugs.
The result: the audience stayed put for pretty much the entire debate, not because the arguments made by the proposers lacked clarity or a sound evidence base, but because they had not been given sufficient reason to question any of their base assumptions.
Nevertheless, the speakers did change at least one mind - mine. I can't say I out and out agree with either side, but I went from having no opinion on the issue to having one and I might not have given it a second thought if I hadn't been lucky enough to chair such an outstanding debate.
By Tony Koutsoumbos, founder of Debating London.