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Enhanced Athletes? It's Only Natural.

Steroids are decidedly not on this list of innovations. That's because they are synthetic drugs that can radically alter the chemical make-up of a competitor's body. Tailor-made treatments, based on genetic modifications, and new medical enhancement techniques promise a safer form of technology than the synthetic substances that are widely -- and justifiably -- despised in the athletic community.

But that key distinction is a difficult one to draw because the use of illegal performance enhancements remains one of the most secretive practices in elite sports competition. What's illegal, how to test for it, what can give someone an edge and isn't banned yet -- all these questions are kept under wraps. It's time to end that. We need to abolish our current anti-doping rules and embrace a performance policy that recognizes the merit of using human enhancements.

I know this sounds like a call to arms that few will heed. That's because we don't really know what we want from sports.

On the Olympic stage, we revere the tradition of the amateur athlete. The archetype of this sporting hero arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was made popular by the inspirational finishes (and soaring soundtrack) of "Chariots of Fire." This athlete works hard, is naturally gifted and exploits those gifts to their greatest potential.

But today, another vision is shoving that one aside at sports' highest levels. It is rooted in the democratization of technology -- in a world where high-tech training regimens exist even at the junior-varsity level -- and is part of a broader transition we are all making: using technology to improve everything, at every level.

Both visions -- the amateur athlete and the high-tech hero -- are dedicated to athletic excellence. They differ, however, in how they define this term. For the former, technology compromises and overshadows the natural athlete. For the latter, technology is a part of the natural athlete. The clash of these values is at the heart of the debate on doping, which is often overshadowed by discussions about fair play. I'm all for the high-tech hero. She's the future.

But how to get to that open culture? Ironically, gene doping, the current biggest challenge in keeping sports "clean," could lead the way.

Gene doping is a broad term for the manipulation of a person's genetic structure to improve performance. Athletes literally change their genetic material en route to a faster finish. One typical example of gene doping involves the alteration of a protein that stimulates cell growth, increasing muscle capacity. This is the cutting edge of enhancement, what Olympic officials are most concerned about in Beijing. But testing for it conclusively is impossible. As this becomes the enhancement of choice, the anti-doping strategy must shift. The world of sports should become more concerned with managing health risks than with policing every enhancement effort.

We want athletes to break world records. We want them to remain extraordinary. So the increased use of human-enhancement technologies will become a necessity, perhaps even an obligation. Just read any roster of your favorite athletic stars: Many suffer vast numbers of injuries at the height of their careers or later. We should not be trying in vain to prevent human enhancement in sports; we should be using technology to protect athletes from the harsh conditions of elite performance.

That makes many fans shudder. I've heard people articulate this fear before: It's a remnant of a vision of the "natural" era of sport history, embedded within a deeper anxiety about bodily transformation.

These concerns have led us to a bizarre, illogical stalemate: We embrace all those enhancements that we have deemed a reasonable extension of natural ability, and we carefully regulate those that we haven't. Synthetic drugs should still, I believe, be regulated. I am not arguing for a spirit of anything goes. The point is to recognize that what's important within sports is the degree to which athletes are competing on a level playing field, where everyone is free to choose the enhancements that best accentuate their performance. That is what the natural athlete should look like today.

There's no better place to consider this concept of the natural athlete than Olympia, Greece. That's where I was last week, speaking about social justice at the International Olympic Academy, not far from where the ancient Games took place and where the heart of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, is buried. Strolling around the ancient stadium, I thought back to that early competition, but not for some meditation on the lost purity of sport. No, I was thinking of the research showing that even the classical gods of sports sought a little help themselves: They consumed performance-enhancing mushrooms and other such substances to gain a competitive edge.

If some lingering reverence for the idealized "natural athlete" of the past still locks us into today's dubious anti-doping laws, the 2004 Summer Olympics should have helped chip away at that flawed vision, or at least shown that athletes do not, as a whole, share these concerns. During those games, several contestants in the shot put -- the only event that actually took place in Olympia's ancient stadium -- including the female gold medalist, were brought up on doping charges.

email@andymiah.net

Andy Miah, the author of "Genetically Modified Athletes," teaches at the University of the West of Scotland.


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