Look at any sport. People are running, swimming and biking faster and farther; linemen are bulkier than ever; sluggers have bigger muscles and hit more home runs. This might be due to better nutrition. Perhaps it is a result of legally prescribed drugs. Heck, it might simply be because of better training. But illegal enhancement has never been more evident or more popular.
Moreover, enhancement science — pharmacology, nanotechnology, biotechnology and genetics — is more sophisticated than ever. A recent Nature article, for example, discusses oxygen-carrying particles that could be inserted in athletes’ blood and DNA therapies that could enhance muscle performance.
In an earlier time, rules limiting the use of such technology may have been a brave attempt to prevent cheating. Now, they are increasingly ineffectual. Humans are becoming a design space. That athletes are on the cutting edge of this engineering domain is neither a prediction nor a threat. It is the status quo.
Get over it.
Professional athletes didn’t always make big bucks, so when enhancement techniques were primitive, the payoff wasn’t necessarily worth the health risks. And with less demand, there were fewer nerds in fewer laboratories creating enhancement technologies. Anabolic steroids, for example, weren’t developed until the 1930s. Can you imagine Babe Ruth using a low-oxygen chamber that simulated a high-altitude environment to increase his red-blood-cell count and improve his respiratory system’s efficiency? That’s just one new way a player can get an edge.
Today, the gap between superstar athletes and almost-stars is rapidly growing. The benefits of being at the top of your game — money, sponsors, cars, houses, movie careers, book deals and groupies — have never been clearer. After all, how many lucrative marketing contracts go to bronze medalists?
To perform consistently, 21st-century athletes enhance legally with better gear, specialized diets, physical trainers, vitamin B, and energy drinks and gels. Why not add drugs and other technologies to the list of legal enhancements, especially when most of us are enhancing our workplace concentration with a morning coffee or energy shot?
In my engineering and sustainability classes, I ask my students how many have played sports in high school or college. Usually, at least half raise their hands. Then I ask how many know people who enhanced illegally. The hands stay up, even if I limit the question to high school athletes. Enhancement — legal or illegal, according to confused, arbitrary and contradictory criteria — is pervasive. Indeed, surveys show that significant numbers of non-athletes, especially in high school and college, use steroids to try to improve their appearance rather than to augment their play on the field. This should not be surprising, given the popularity of other cosmetic-enhancement techniques such as discretionary plastic surgery, even among young people.