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Sports Enhancement and Life Enhancement: Different Rules Apply

Sports Enhancement and Life Enhancement: Different Rules Apply

If you want to see the future debate over human enhancement, look no further than today’s sports. The modern athlete is a highly-enhanced creature. Whatever physiological edge you can get may provide the razor-thin margin for victory in contemporary sports. And with more ways of modifying the body come more restrictions, and innovations to get around the restrictions.

Athletes may very well be leading the rest of society into the debate about who, how, and why people will be allowed — or even required — to enhance their bodies.

Elite players get it all: performance-enhancing drugs, surgeries, gadgetry, specialized equipment, even mathematical analysis to help them perform their desired tasks. They are monitored and modeled, tested and retested, sorted and classified. The modern elite player is an isolated cyborgian construct with barely room for a life and identity away from their sport.

Current attitudes towards enhancements vary wildly. Some enhancements are considered the price you pay to get in the game; others, the worst type of cheating. Certain dangerous acts are considered wrong while others are considered honorable. Some seem arcane while others could be useful to anyone and everyone. These attitudes tend to polarize — a new injectable hormone will quickly become anathema, but seeking multiple LASIK eye surgeries to get better than 20/20 vision is a professional responsibility.

Form matters at least as much as outcome. Take the case of Erythropoietin, or EPO. You make EPO to regulate the number of red blood cells you have, and therefore how readily you can get oxygen to your muscles. Injections of synthetic Erythropoietin to boost performance are a major no-no in sports. It’s considered blood doping. But athletes can produce EPO another way: by sleeping in a hypobaric chamber. This reduces oxygen and air pressure to what it would be somewhere 10,000-15,000 feet above sea level. The body responds by producing its own EPO — and lots of it — to get as much oxygen to the sleeping muscles as it can in the deprived environment. After a few weeks in one of these chambers, training in the thick O2 bath at sea level is a breeze. And sleeping in a hypobaric chamber would not be considered cheating any more than pitching a tent halfway up Everest.

Another instructive example is Tommy John surgery, an operation that replaces the ligament in the elbow that tends to suffer most in baseball pitchers. This surgery lets them pitch harder for longer, and despite being a major surgical modification, it isn’t viewed negatively. On the other hand, strengthening the arms by supplementing with a combination of testosterone and weight training is prohibited.

What makes a hypobaric chamber OK, but an injection a firing offense? Because we said so.

This may seem hypocritical, but it isn’t. After all, the rules of sports are arbitrary. Why shouldn’t you use your hands in soccer? Because then it’s not soccer. What makes a hypobaric chamber OK, but an injection a firing offense? Because we said so. After we invented agriculture, the bow, or perhaps mountaintop mining equipment, human athletics became a cultural pastime rather than a vital function. No matter how much you love your local sports team, the stakes aren’t what they once were. You will not be starved for protein through the long winter if Barry Bonds isn’t hitting like he used to. Thusly, we can pick the rules we like. They don’t have to be consistent with anything in the real world.

This is why applying the debate about sports enhancements to the rest of the world can be dangerous. When we’re deciding if we should give Modafinil to pilots or Ritalin to grad students, we’re making life and death choices about what our future will look like. The questions that arise around sports enhancement — questions about the player’s quality of life, autonomy and freedom, or questions around gauging acceptable risk — can help to inform a wider debate on enhancement, as long as we keep those aspects related to arbitrary rules back where they belong — in pastimes.

Quinn Norton covers science, technology, law and whatever else gets her attention. She lives in Washington D.C. and is most easily reachable at