Tech & Science

The Cyborg Olympic Games: If Performance Enhancements Were Legal

2.21_NW0408_EnhancedOlympics
02/21/14
In the Magazine
Ballboy Ryan McIntosh, right, 23, runs court-side at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York September 3, 2012. War veteran McIntosh lost his leg in Afghanistan. Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

In February 2013, Lindsey Vonn - perhaps the most accomplished female skier in American history - tore her anterior cruciate ligament in a crash in the mountains of Austria. After major reparative knee surgery, she spent most of last year in rehabilitation, but ultimately chose to withdraw from the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, citing "instability" in the injured leg.

But suppose that Vonn had decided not to repair the torn ACL, opting instead to replace her entire leg - or both legs - with advanced prosthetics better than her originals. She might add attachments allowing her to jump higher, ski faster and perform stunts that are impossible with legs made out of flesh, muscle and blood. Her legs would never suffer an injury again.

Such a RoboCop twist would, obviously, change the nature of Olympic competition. It might even lead to a new version of the games, an Enhanced Olympics. And if Vonn was permitted to use prosthetic legs, perhaps we would want to think hard about allowing pairs' figure skaters to use low doses of Adderall or other stimulants, which some evidence suggests can sharpen the focus and concentration of healthy people. Or permitting speed skaters to train using micro-doses of steroids to boost strength and recovery time.

Little research exists to understand the safety and efficacy of these drugs used in low doses by healthy people - although the dangers are clear for higher doses and sustained use. But what if a certain threshold of safety could be established? It's a big "if," but there is the possibility that one day, sports authorities might issue rules governing the use of these and other drugs just as they do the strict parameters for size, weight and composition of skis, bobsleds and other equipment.

For many, the idea of an enhanced Olympics is upsetting and unethical. But consider that these enhancement technologies are here now, or are on the cusp. Versions of some of these have already been used - and sometimes abused - in elite sports.

Two years ago, in the London Olympic Games, Oscar Pistorius competed in track and field, using his artificial Cheetah legs. And the Lance Armstrong doping story is all too familiar. Last year, he admitted that he illegally won seven Tour de France victories while on a steady diet of steroids and erythropoietin, a hormone that pumps up oxygen-rich red blood cells and gives an edge in endurance.

A major difference, of course, between these two athletes is that the disabled Pistorius used his enhancement technology legally, while the healthy Armstrong did not. But this is a line that soon may begin to blur, as technologies developed to augment the ill and the disabled continue to push into the realm of enhancements for the healthy.

For example, scientists and engineers have recently developed devices that bump up cognitive performance by dousing the brain in low levels of electricity and using magnetic fields to stimulate the brain's nerve cells. Experiments at the National Institutes of Health have used transcranial direct-current polarization - currents applied to the brain through electrodes - to boost healthy subject's motor and cognitive performance by 20 percent.

Hugh Herr, a bioengineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has created artificial legs that he insists are better than flesh and blood. They feature not only materials more durable than bone and muscle, but also tiny computers that regulate fluid dynamics, moving parts, weight distribution and torque. A champion rock climber who lost his lower legs in a climbing accident at the age of 17, Herr predicts the emergence of new human-machine sports that might combine, say, track and field and NASCAR. And he thinks he's one of the first of the breed. "I am a post-human," Herr says. "When you include both my biological and bionic parts, my body is evolving faster than yours."

Athletes already use technology to push their bodies to the edge of human capability. Scientific diets, oxygen tents that simulate high altitudes and supplements that fine-tune already genetically superior bodies are all simple - and legal - examples. High-tech equipment is also beginning to merge technology and humans: everything from the powerful yet lightweight skis in the giant slalom to the ultra-slick suits worn by speed skaters and skiers to cut down on friction could all be considered edging away from "apparatus" and closer to "augmentation."

In other words, modern athletes are already enhanced.

One major argument in favor of strict regulation of performance enhancing drugs and other forms of enhancement have to do with player safety. The website of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), for example, warns that steroids increase the odds of mood shifts, reduced sperm counts, damage to the heart and masculinization in women. And yet the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has said that more than 1 million American adults say they use anabolic steroids.

Stanford bioethicist David Magnus tells Newsweek that the risks of taking low doses of steroids are really no different from the dangers of sports in which athletes hurl down mountains at 70 miles per hour and luge racers rush down icy chutes at 90 mph.

That's the paradox of spectator sports: The governing bodies ban performance-enhancing drugs in the name of safety, all the while knowing that one of the attractions of events like downhill skiing is the inherent danger, as the athletes on display seek to become the biggest, fastest, strongest and most daring. The tension between techno-athletes and groups like the WADA that use increasingly sophisticated detection techniques has resulted in an "arms race,"says bioethicist Thomas Murray, the former president of the Hastings Center. Each side works with and against the other.

The other argument that these governing bodies make in banning enhancement is one of fairness - it wouldn't be right for some athletes to get an edge while others played without.

But what if the rules were changed to allow enhancements in certain games and sports competitions? It's not too hard to picture a future with two parallel Olympic Games: one enhanced and one au naturel. The real question is if there were two kinds of games, which version would draw the bigger audience?

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