Sunday, August 05, 2007

Athletic enhancement and abritrary lines

Not that being alone in holding an opinion ever bothered me much, but it's interesting to see that I'm not the only one who wonders about the arbitrary lines we often create between the kinds of enhanced performance we choose to call "cheating" and the enhanced performances we choose to cheer.

This article explores several sides of the question without getting hung up on labels. It wonders, for example, why Tiger Woods' (whom I admire greatly) laser surgery to improve his eyesight is legitimate while taking certain drugs or other substances is cheating. It notes that competitive bodybuilding, for example, is already "splitting into two kinds of organizations -- the untested (anything goes) and the tested ..." But even the magazine for the "natural" bodybuilding federation is packed with ads for substances to enhance performance. Steve Downs, chairman of the federation "likes performance-enhancing substances that can be found in nature, as opposed to those synthesized in a lab." Thus amino acids, which help the pituitary gland secrete human growth hormone are good, but taking synthetic human growth hormone directly is bad.

Ocular implants vs. contact lenses? A tough call. The natural federation doesn't allow muscle implants but allows breast implants.

James Hughes, a bioethicist at Trinity College in Connecticut, notes that the ancient Olympic athletes used exotic medications and herbal treatments (including eating raw bees -- ugghh). Competitive athletes train 12 hours a day and are hooked up to computers to help them determine which training is most effective. "If you have a cold, you take antihistamines to bring you up to your natural level of performance. But in sports you would be taken out of competition." Why is a hyperbaric tent not cheating when taking HGH or steroids is? Hughes thinks it's "purely a social construct."

Maybe the day will come when we have various sports developing two leagues -- the Naturals and the Enhanced. In the meantime, can we tone down all the moralism about Barry Bonds, who probably did use steroids, but has never tested positive, and allegedly used them at a time when they were neither illegal nor banned by Major League Baseball?

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