Sports are supposed to be pure—that’s why there are rules and referees; that’s why the first Olympians competed in the nude. It’s also the reason that the federal government is spending millions and millions of dollars investigating a famous cyclist who has, after a decade of denials and countless drug tests, returned to the center of sports scandal. It must be summer, since Lance and doping have returned to the national discussion.
It’s only natural that when we discover our heroes have injected chemicals into their veins for a competitive edge (and I’m not saying Lance has, only that it’s looking increasingly difficult for him to prove that he hasn’t) we find them tainted and strip them of medals and put an asterisk by their names. Doping is ugly for fans but it goes beyond betrayal. Performance enhancers turn a contest between athletes into a competition among scientists and engineers. This is the best argument against enhancers. It’s also the best argument for them.
Let’s pretend, for a minute, that a separate league exists. Let’s call it the Asterisk League or, better, the League of Extraordinary Medicine. Drugs are legal but regulated. Athletes get educated about the risks, long term and short, of everything they introduce into—or onto—their bodies. Fans know exactly who is taking what and tracking their performance accordingly. Labs and scientists are inexorably linked to athletes’ rise and fall. Chemist versus chemist doesn’t sound like it would make great television, but the field would quickly advance to the point were records were broken daily and feats of crazy strength became the norm. Chemist versus chemist would become superhuman versus superhuman. Broadcasts could include expert scientists in the booth describing the limits of the human body and how these chemical enhancements get around that, or don’t. The League of Extraordinary Medicine is more honest, its regulation more sensible, since outlawing drugs just does not work—we’ve got a forever War on Drugs to prove it. And our tests for drugs still aren’t very good.
Through this openness the league creates an environment where cutting-edge science is discussed daily, and celebrated, alongside athletic triumph. Better still: legitimizing enhancement would make the enhancements better. More drugs hit the market, more treatments become available, and this would trickle down to non-athletes. Would all this openness and advancement foster a more honest, inviting, even wholesome environment? Maybe. Creating a separate league where drugs are legal would, without a doubt, make competition safer for athletes. Matthew Herper, who has covered science and health (and, by extension, athletes and drugs) for a decade at Forbes, says as much.
“To me, the most obvious solution has always been to legalize those drugs that work, and to experimentally monitor new entrants, including dietary supplements, for both efficacy and safety. Biological improvement would be treated much as athletic equipment like baseball bats and running shoes. This could improve both athlete’s performance and their health, and would be a lot better than having everybody trying whatever additive they can sneak, attempting to stay ahead of drug tests, and trusting anecdotes as a way of measuring safety and efficacy.”
But perhaps most importantly, by keeping advances off the field, we’re holding back possibilities. A few years ago I visited Hugh Herr, the director of biomechatronics at MIT’s Media Lab, who had just invented a robotic ankle that would soon revolutionize prosthetics. We ended up discussing the ankle a little bit, but mostly we talked about science in sports. Herr is an athlete. As a young man he was a world-class rock climber. A week before my visit, he had been busy trying to convince the International Association of Athletics Federations to allow South African runner Oscar Pistorius to compete in the Olympics. Pistorius has no legs below his knees and runs using Cheetah Flex-Foot carbon fiber limbs which, arguably, gives him an unfair advantage. Herr is also a double amputee, and walks and climbs using prosthetics. That day in his lab, while he showed me his improved ankle and described his work with veterans, Herr told me that he sees no reason why we can’t make “disabled” people stronger and faster than the rest of us. In fact, we already are: just look at Pistorius. The IAAF agreed and, weeks later, decided to ban the South African from competition.
One of the best arguments for pushing, even uncomfortably, the boundaries of science and the human form was voiced by Joe Rosen, a controversial plastic surgeon. Rosen (the subject of a profile in Harper’s) sees endless possibilities when the human form and science meet. But this makes people very uncomfortable. A colleague asked: “If a patient came to you and said, ‘I want to you to give me wings,’…would you actually do it?”
“Who here doesn’t try to send their children to the best schools, in the hopes of altering them?” Rosen responded. “Who here objects to a Palm Pilot, a thing we clasp to our bodies, with which we receive rapid electronic signals? Who here doesn’t surround themselves with a metal shell and travel at death defying speeds? We have always altered ourselves, for beauty or for power, and so long as we are not causing harm what makes us think we should stop?”