Enhanced Athletes? It's Only Natural.

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.

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.


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

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company