HIGH-TECH HEROES

Enhanced Athletes? It's Only Natural.

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By Andy Miah
Sunday, August 3, 2008

Here's what it could look like: A swimmer, impossibly long arms swinging at his side, takes to the starting block. He has trained for this moment for months. Keeping up with the latest developments, he has endured surgical enhancements to enlarge the webbing in his fingers and toes. He's wearing the ultimate in sharkskin swimsuit technology. He inhales deeply through nasal passages surgically widened to optimize his breathing efficiency -- and dives in.

That's not something we'll see at the Beijing Olympics, of course. We'll see speed and finesse, but then, behind the scenes, the new champions will be poked and prodded and thoroughly examined to make sure that they got to the podium by dint of pure brute strength and training prowess, not doping.

But maybe it's time that our view of human enhancement changed. I'll be on my way to China this week for my fifth Olympics -- as a passionate spectator and a scientific observer of the latest in the fusion of sports and technology. I'm looking forward to my favorite event, the triathlon. But I'm not looking forward to the endless, inevitable hand-wringing over doping and performance enhancement. It's entirely reasonable to look down on illegal drug use, duplicity and rule-breaking, but I wonder: What are the end goals of our anti-doping crusade in sports? And has that crusade fallen hopelessly behind the times?

By today's standards, if most of us non-athletes took a random doping test, we'd probably fail it. Few consider this to be morally troublesome. For most of us, human enhancement is an essential part of daily life: We enjoy ultra-whitening toothpaste, vitamins, anti-aging skin cream, daily doses of caffeine and much more. We're already enhancement junkies. So why should athletes be restricted in carrying out their daily tasks -- such as breaking world records -- when the rest of us are unimped in gaining a competitive edge at the office by, say, drinking coffee?

The way technology is being integrated into athletics lags behind the way the rest of society treats new discoveries, in part because the sports world's policies on enhancement are still committed to the venerable ideal of all-natural human performance. But this notion is a charade: Athletes are already highly dependent on all manner of technology, including aerodynamic uniforms and carefully calibrated nutrition supplements.

So let's own up to the truth. We cherish elite athletes because they provide extraordinary performances. We want to jump to our feet, cheering the latest world record or impossible come-from-behind victory. I encourage my fellow spectators in Beijing not to bemoan the demise of traditional sports. Rather, let us celebrate the rise of a new age of genuinely superhuman athletes, where the rules of sports are governed not by ever-present but ultimately unreliable doping police, but by a genuine concern for optimizing excellence. As technology gets better, athletes should, too.

Athletic performance is inherently technological. Athletes use scientifically designed equipment and scientific knowledge to develop their technique.

Take, for example, the high jump. Not only do shoe companies reliably roll out the newest, lightest-weight shoes every year, but the modern technique itself is an example of biomechanical knowledge in practice. It's called the "Fosbury Flop," after American Dick Fosbury, who won gold in the 1968 Games by turning his back to the bar and projecting himself over it head, not feet, first.

A more recent innovation are "altitude chambers," artificial environments that simulate differing levels of altitude. These chambers have effects on an athlete's biology that mimic some methods of doping, although they remain legal, for now.

In this, the age of enhancement, new technologies enter elite sports preparation all the time. And more are coming, such as leg extensions using reconstructive surgery, or standard surgical procedures that translate into improved performance on the field.

Consider Tommy John surgery, an operation named for the pitcher who was the first to undergo this specific procedure to repair torn elbow ligaments. Athletes who need a Tommy John operation face the hard choice between never competing again or undergoing invasive surgery and strenuous rehabilitation. But there is a silver lining for those who go under the knife: Some athletes report returning to the field pitching harder and faster than before they were injured. How far a leap is it to imagine athletes undergoing such surgery prior to injury to reinforce their biological capabilities?

If a scalpel seems too extreme, how about a high-tech glove? This is just one of the new devices used by some Olympic-level athletes to combat fatigue. It's a radical cooling device that maximizes the transfer of heat through the palms of the hands. It mechanically draws blood into the arteries and veins of the hands, reducing heat buildup that can decrease athletic performance in any sport.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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