Lance Armstrong’s fall: A case for allowing performance enhancement

Brad Allenby, the Lincoln professor of ethics and engineering at Arizona State University, is a co-author of “The Techno-Human Condition.”

In the past month, cyclist Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. His commercial sponsors, including Nike, have fled. He has resigned as chairman of Livestrong, the anti-cancer charity he founded. Why? Because the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the International Cycling Union say he artificially enhanced his performance in ways not approved by his sport and helped others on his team do the same.

This may seem like justice, but that’s an illusion. Whether Armstrong cheated is not the core consideration. Rather, his case shows that enhancement is here to stay. If everyone’s enhancing, it’s a reality that we should embrace.

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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.

Armstrong’s alleged doping in the Tour de France is just more evidence that human excellence is increasingly a product of enhancement.

Mischaracterizing a fundamental change in sports as merely individual violations of the rules has serious consequences. For example, this thinking has led to inadequate research on the risks of enhancement technologies, especially new ones. Why research something that can’t be used? My anecdotal class surveys show that students have significant skepticism about the reported side effects of such treatments and drugs, as well as perceptions of bias among regulators against enhancement. As a result of such attitudes, there’s a tendency to play down the risks of some technologies. Call it the “Reefer Madness” response — ignoring real risks because you think the danger is exaggerated. This is ignorance born of prohibition.

What should be done? Past a certain age, athletes should be allowed to use whatever enhancements they think appropriate based on objective data. Providing reliable information about the full range of technologies should become the new mission of a (renamed) Anti-Doping Agency, one not driven by an anti-enhancement agenda. It wouldn’t have to be a free-for-all: Age limits and other appropriate regulations could limit dangerous enhancements for non-professionals; those that are too risky could be restricted or, yes, banned.

How? Perhaps the Food and Drug Administration could take over these duties from the Anti-Doping Agency, using its own calculus. Is the proposed enhancement technology effective? Does it hurt more than it helps? It’s doubtful that a genetic enhancement, for example, would be allowed. The field is too new. However, some supplements such as creatine, alphalipoic acid and at least some currently banned steroids would probably be acceptable.

In professional sports, normal people do not compete normally. We watch athletes who are enhanced — through top-notch training, equipment and sometimes illegal substances — compete for our amusement. And, despite our sanctimonious claims that this is wrong, we like it that way. So we do athletes a deep disservice by clinging to our whimsical illusion of reality at the cost of their livelihood. If we allow football players to take violent hits and suffer concussions so that we might be entertained, why not allow them to use substances that might cause them health problems? It’s their decision.

If you yearn to watch “purer” athletes, check out a Division III football game. Visit the minor league ballpark near you. Set up an amateur league. Better yet, train for a marathon sans enhancement.

But don’t force the Tour de France to cling to outdated ideas of how athletes pedaling for their professional lives should behave. Cyclists have enhanced, are enhancing now and will continue to enhance. In his stubborn refusal to admit guilt in the face of the evidence, maybe this is what Armstrong is trying to tell us.

outlook@washpost.com

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