Monday, November 27, 2006

Artificial means of athletic enhancement

Preface: The use of steroids as a booster for athletes is dangerous. It is harmful to their health and has unwanted side effects far out of proportion from their "benefits" to mankind. Steroids have legitimate medical uses, but this isn't one. But that's not what this post is about.

Allowing athletes to artificially enhance themselves to become better performers seems to many like a cut-and-dried question, but it's not. Enhancements can be arranged in a spectrum, and where the "dividing line" is along that spectrum varies over time and by situation.

The kind of intensive training, starting from a very young age, that is common to athletes in some sports today, would have been seen only a few generations ago as being absurd, a way to "ruin the game" by artificially inflating performance levels. Most sports now have equipment being used which far exceeds what was available decades ago. Trainers now use computer analysis of motions of athletes to achieve tiny, but in some cases crucial, improvements in performance. Athletes manipulate their biochemistry and metabolism to a very precise level, using frequent blood tests and other indicators, through the use of techniques ranging from diet adjustment to time spent in hyperbaric chambers.

We are long and far away from the point where the plot of most sports movies (where a regular guy with a little talent and a lot of gumption can make the difference in the big game) is more than an exceedingly unlikely fantasy. The use of steriods doesn't really change that. It's just another step.

That doesn't mean there shouldn't be a line. As things change the game has to adapt to the changes, and during the period before each adaptation, those changes will need to be "over the line". When someone has a prosthetic eye that can track the movement of a 90mph baseball precisely enough to hit it every time, or a cybernetic arm that hits them out of the park on every hit, those will be "over the line" until the game can adapt to that. If tomorrow someone developed a steroid-like performance enhancement drug that didn't have unwanted health and other side effects, sports would have to adapt to that, too, and until they did, it might well be best for it to remain forbidden.

But eventually, these things will simply become a new baseline, just like high-performance teflon suits changed the baseline in swimming, and someday, genetically engineered higher-efficiency alveoli will change it again. Human capabilities change; human pursuits must follow.


litlfrog said...

When Niccolò Paganini first composed his violin caprices, they were unprecedented in the history of music. Paganini was thought a living wonder to be able to perform such pieces. They're now part of the standard violin repertoire; any serious violinist must learn how to use double-stops and left-hand pizzicato. The upper limits of human achievement are indeed an ever-receding horizon.

Anonymous said...

I have been lucky enough to compete in high level college athletic sports and fortunately I attended college with athletic scholarship. The recent “scandal” over metabolic steroids has only come to light because of high profile professional athletes in their “godlike” attitudes got caught. The only reason they got caught is not from the improved testing compatibilities but because today’s media are clamoring for sensationalistic scandals. If our fourth estate would spend their time and effort in researching our corrupt government as they have on some elitist athletes today’s United States of American would be far better place to live. Society’s humanism and compassion has given away to greed and fame more than anytime in documented history.
I watched on television Floyd Landis' stirring victory in the hard mountain-ascending stage 17 of the Tour de France after he stumbled badly in the difficult previous stage. Landis went on to win what seemed like a remarkable victory, but tests taken after stage 17 showed abnormally elevated levels of testosterone. The French then stripped him of his title as winner of the 2006 Tour De France. These cycling scandals came not long after scandals in baseball, where Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, and other super stars appear to have been guilty of using performance-enhancing steroids to push them to record breaking performances, especially in home run hitting. World class track stars, such as Olympic 100 meter champion Justin Gatlin, professional football players, weightlifters, swimmers, and outstanding athletes in other sports also have either failed drug tests or are suspected of using banned substances. Why should steroids, blood transfusions and other forms of drug doping, and the loom of gene doping, be banned in competitive athletic contests when the athletes know the risks to their health from using banned substances to enhance their performance? It’s my opinion the justification for banning doping comes from the fundamental rule in athletics do no “harm" to compete. This has been ignored at an alarming rate and fueled by the outrageous compensations given to these athletes for their winning efforts. For example, Lance Armstrong, who has successfully fought off continuing claims that he used some form of doping, is primarily remembered for his seven consecutive triumphs in the Tour de France, not for his winning times in any of the races or stages.
Compensation for their efforts is related to winning percent because of the influence it has on television audiences and the media who are mainly interested in victories, not absolute performance levels because in America everybody loves a “winner”. Super stars, including super teams, get large rewards even when they are only slightly better than their competitors, while those who are only average receive much lower incomes and prestige. In this environment, doping is very attractive to athletes because it gives them that chemically enhanced competitive edge. True baseball fans are upset that Bonds, McGuire, and Sosa took steroids that enabled them to break the single season record for home runs established by Roger Maris, who did not take drugs and which is now allowing Bonds to pass Babe Ruth in total home runs. We can be certain Ruth did not use enhancers unless one counts constantly getting drunk and eating hot dogs. As Bonds closes in on the all time home run leader Hank Aaron, who has a squeaky clean reputation and I am appalled by MLB in supporting this tainted super star .While the case for banning various types of drugs and other enhancers is strong, the ability to control doping is seems to be limited. For there is a continuing battle between bans and the discovery of new enhancers that have not been banned. So steroid use in baseball was not banned until after several major players greatly improved their slugging performance through using them. So in retrospect were these athletes wrong in using them? Our culture and way of life is to be the best at all costs, so if a brilliant scientist uses methamphetamines to stay awake and find a cure for cancer, is his findings tainted? Please, don’t think I believe finding a cure for cancer and breaking a record in sports are anyway the same but what makes it ethically to enhance any accomplishment. Would rock n roll be where it is today without drugged educed stupors? I am only using this anecdote to fuel the thought in the banning steroids and chemicals in sports. The point I am trying to make is this restriction has a double edged sword in our pop culture. The owners and college deans want to fill the stands with paying customers to fill their coffers and the athletes want to cash in on their talents by securing outrageous salaries offered to them, so athletes search for better ways to improve their performance and the powers that be look the other way. On the other hand is this fair play and exhibiting what is right about athletic completion, the human endeavor to physically and mentally perform at their peak and to better their competition. I struggled with this when my son was competing in athletics; he was a very gifted basketball player but lacked the motivation and desire to improve. He relied on his god gifted talents to get him by in a league that made him a super star. As his career progressed and his physical attributes became more average, he asked me about performance enhancers. He wanted to experiment with “supplements” because all his friends were using him. My son is very special to me and I love him dearly but at this juncture in his life he was not willing to commit to the time and effort to improve his skills and in essence all he was looking for was a quick fix to raise him back up to the levels he had grown accustom to. Fortunately, he respected my wishes and abstained from getting involved in any chemical enhancing programs. As I reflect back on that time I wonder if I did him a disservice, I wonder if I ruined his chances of moving on to the next level and ruining any chances of him cashing in on his talents. I don’t have any regrets just curiosity and as the steroid story continues I will watch and wonder. Good topic HG!