Thursday, September 04, 2008

Beta Blockers

University of Minnesota bioethics professor Carl Elliott has a great article arguing in favor of allowing the use of beta blockers in the Olympics in the current Atlantic Monthly.

They don't enhance performance so much as they eliminate the outward signs of nervous tension, he writes. Here's a snippet:
One of the most compelling arguments against performance enhancing drugs is that they produce an arms race among competitors, who feel compelled to use the drugs even when they would prefer not to, simply to stay competitive. But this argument falls away if the effects of the drug are distributed so unequally. If it's only the nervous performers who are helped by beta blockers, there's no reason for anyone other than nervous performers to use them. And even if everyone did feel compelled to use beta blockers, it's unlikely that anyone would experience untoward health effects, because beta blockers are safe, cheap, and their effects wear off in a few hours. So unlike users of human growth hormone and steroids, users of beta blockers don’t have to worry about their heads growing or their testicles shrinking. You don’t even have to take them regularly. All you have to do is take a small, 10 mg tablet about an hour before your performance.
It almost sounds too good to be true.

But then should we include the ability to handle nervous stress in our measurements of great athletes? Musicians and public speakers take beta blockers. Are athletes gaining an unfair advantage by using them?


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