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 quinn@quinnnorton.com

10 Responses

  1. Chris W says:

    I say we start the mutant league. If we can’t stop enhancement in sports through force then split it into to teams. A non-enhanced league that wants to see what the unaltered human body can do, an an enhanced league where anything goes. If the players want to die at age 35 in order to get than extra edge and win games while their 20 let them. Then we can see what really works and just how far science can push the body.

  2. Anonymous says:

    yes. the scientific standards related to doping crafted across many sports and over many nations is all arbitrary. all of those doctors, scientific researchers, ethicists, former athletes, and international sports organizations created what YOU THINK are out-dated rules. I’m sure that all those people working for all those thousands of hours over the past 4-5 decades NEVER CONSIDERED the original thoughts you present in this 150 word essay. you are a true revolutionary. if only the IOC would read this blog — maybe they would change their hopelessly outdated and “arbitrary” ways!!!

  3. Anonymous says:

    If you want to see the future debate over human enhancement, look no further than today’s sports. I had no idea that elite players get : performance-enhancing drugs, surgeries, gadgetry, specialized equipment, even mathematical analysis to help them perform their desired tasks. Anyway I’ve just bought my Real Madrid Tickets and I’m looking forward to seeing the game.

  4. Jason jack says:

    doping shouldnt be allowed.basically in the beginning it might make the sportsmen to do well but later on it will effect his system.this can have serious consequences as well

  5. Frank says:

    Atheletes are unnatural creatures to begin with. They hone themselves to perform a handful of tasks to the utmost, with little concern for anything else. If they want to shoot up with life-shortening drugs, or go through expensive experimental medical therapies in order to further this goal why shouldn’t they? As the author points out we do not punish people of other professions when they ‘go the extra mile’. Can you imagine a world where celebrities were forbidden from getting implants and eye lifts? Or models forbidden to diet or color their hair for the sake of fairplay. Let’s face it professional sports is not only a business it’s a lifestyle choice. If players want to compete they should come to the game prepared for an uneven playing field.

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  6. Katrina says:

    doping shouldnt be allowed.basically in the beginning it might make the sportsmen to do well but later on it will effect his system.this can have serious consequences as well Best youtube sport videos

  7. Katy says:

    Sports doping, in my opinion, is a slippery slope on so many levels.

  8. Jim says:

    I agree… especially when researching health insurance quotes you find out that some of these drugs are even covered by the taxpayer-supported government healthcare options, making it available to more than “just” the rich sports stars, but also people on the street… who probably don’t need any help from “roid rage,” haha.

  9. Evan Scott says:

    Athletes honing themselves to perform a handful of tasks to the utmost is actually entirely natural. Did you go to college? Learn a trade? Everyone specializes in their profession in this a manner. For a doctor it is chemistry, anatomy and biology, for an athlete it is making themselves as competitive in their sport. What about putting substances that in their body that would not normally be put in. Caffeine is proven to be performance enhancing, but is allowed because it is a staple in the diets of almost everyone. When was the last time you had tea, soda, or chocolate? While HGH and EPO both occur in the human body, healthy people do not ingest these substances as part of their diets. Athlete’s should be prepared for an uneven playing field, because that is what they get naturally. Even if you put in the hard work, the odds that you could ever be as successful in sports as elite athletes is very small. Athlete’s figure this out and only the best continue to specialize as athletes. The rest of college athletes such as myself will hang up the spikes when we can no longer compete and find another profession.

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