Is It Time For a Flex Plan?

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Some day soon -- maybe today -- we're going to have to admit it.

We have a new norm in sports. Athletes routinely are enhanced. Many of their achievements are as dependent on technology as they are on talent, dedication and spirit. The way their competitions are set up, they have little choice.

The old rules are increasingly untenable. Especially the one that goes: Enhancement is indistinguishable from cheating.

This is not just about Barry Bonds, who may break the all-time home-run record this week. Nor is it just about the Tour de France and its ejected riders. It's about Tiger Woods's laser surgery to improve his eyesight. It's also about even the legitimate Olympians. The exotic training and nutrition and astonishing genetic endowments of some render them scarcely recognizable as the same kind of human you see on the Metro.

Is it inevitable that there soon will be two kinds of leagues in baseball, basketball or football -- the Naturals and the Enhanced?

Competitive bodybuilding is far down that road, already splitting into two kinds of organizations -- the untested (anything goes) and the tested, according to Steve Downs, chairman of the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation, which emphasizes the word "natural."

Even in his league, though, the competitors are enhanced, Downs acknowledges. His magazine, Natural Bodybuilding and Fitness, is packed with ads for products like "Ripped: Body Building's Strongest Fat Burner," "AB-FX Transdermal Muscle Defining Complex" and "Maximum Strength Diuretic Xpel Extreme Muscle Defining Formula."

"There are good substances and bad ones," Downs says. Separating these is a constant debate, with no bright lines, only shifting, uncertain ones. The list of prohibited substances issued in 2007 by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the leading organization that monitors doping in sport, runs to 11 tightly packed pages.

Downs likes performance-enhancing substances that can be found in nature, as opposed to those synthesized in a lab. These include amino acids that he says help the pituitary gland secrete human growth hormone. The argument is: Taking testosterone, bad. Taking herbs that he says have been studied in Bulgaria and Australia that help the body raise its own testosterone levels: good.

Substances that come from Scottish pine tree bark: good. Similar substances synthesized in a lab: bad. These products both involved the creation of androstenedione, or "andro," a precursor that requires a chemical change in the body in order to promote testosterone production. Home-run slugger Mark McGwire was pilloried for using it in the late '90s, even though at that time it was an over-the-counter product not on Major League Baseball's list of banned substances. Andro is now banned by baseball and the Food and Drug Administration.

Downs says he retains medical consultants to consider the safety of various enhancements. But in his league he is the final arbiter of what is "natural" and what is not. His degree is in athletic management.

"What it's all about is setting limits," he says.

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