Enhancement in sport

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L159-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved April 22, 2021, from

1 Defining enhancement

In sport, ‘enhancement’ refers to something that improves one’s athletic performance. But not all methods of improving performance would count as enhancements. For example, practising at a sport and weightlifting can produce spectacular performance gains, but they are not part of our ordinary understanding of ‘enhancement’. What, then, makes a method of improving one’s performance an enhancement?

We might be tempted to answer that enhancements are those methods of improving one’s performance that bypass effort. But, on reflection, this answer is unsatisfactory. For it both excludes prototypical enhancements, like anabolic steroids – which work, in part, by enabling athletes to train for longer – and includes activities that we do not generally regard as enhancements: like sleep.

A working definition of enhancement that is more consistent with ordinary usage of the term is: an intervention that improves performance, beyond what is necessary to restore health, through ‘unnatural’ (or specifically biomedical) means.

Still, it is an open question whether certain interventions should be classified as enhancements. For example, would ‘hypoxic air tents’, which are used to simulate high-altitude training – and have the same biological effects as the performance-enhancing drug Erythropoietin – count as enhancements? Is caffeine an enhancement? What about spending time in a ‘float tank’? (Many athletes tout the stress- and pain-relieving benefits of lying in these dark, salt water-filled pods; Aschwanden, 2019.)

A challenge for any proposed definition of enhancement, then, is to distinguish between those performance improvements that are enhancements, and those that are not. A further challenge is to explain, what, if anything, makes the category of ‘enhancement’ morally significant.

Citing this article:
Thau, Tena. 1 Defining enhancement. Enhancement in sport, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L159-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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