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What About Performance Enhancing Mechanisms?

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Just before the Tour de France, Sports Illustrated ran a feature on Floyd Landis that focused on his origins as a Mennonite–raised boy whose love and talent for mountain biking literally pushed him into the very different world of international cycling.

While the Mennonites are not quite as strict as the Amish (for instance, Landis attended public high school), there’s a charming story about Landis insisting on wearing sweat pants for his first mountain bike race because bicycle shorts were immodest by Mennonite standards.

Jumping ahead a decade and a half later, we have Floyd Landis telling the world that after performing poorly in a critical mountain stage he decided to drown his sorrows in hard liquor and that may have contributed to his unusually high ratio of testosterone to epi-testosterone. Landis’s story comes bizarrely close to the early Farrelly Brothers farce, Kingpin, which traced the rise and corruption of Randy Quaid, a young Amish man, with a passion for bowling.

With Justin Gatlin and Barry Bonds also prominent in the news lately, I have been wondering if a couple generations down the line if our genetically-enhanced, chemically optimized, and possibly bio-cyber equipped descendants will think of us as “Amish”. One sign in my household is that my daughter has a close friend whose parents refuse to have a television or an Internet connection at home, she calls her friend’s family “Amish”, though they’re not religious at all.

Competitive athletics does seem to be one of the last realms where we persist in this sharp moral division between “natural” and “unfairly enhanced”. No one, for instance, complains that Courtney Cox shouldn’t get roles because she went through a late puberty after she did her time as Alex Keaton’s girlfriend on Family Ties. If I remember correctly (yes it’s embarrassing that I know these things) Jenny McCarthy couldn’t get into Playboy pre-plastic surgery despite the fact that she was otherwise quite attractive. To be fair, any number of folks do bemoan the departure of the “natural” body from our popular notions of sexual attractiveness and I'm definitely not sure how the public will react to Mel Gibson or Lindsay Lohan's apparent choices of "enhancement".

I also get a constant flow of spam offering some equivalent form of male enhancement, I still think that my wife got mad at me at some point and turned my name over to a mailing list. I have yet to hear a story of a young woman dumping her boyfriend because he has the same doctor as Rush Limbaugh.

Obviously, we don’t insist that people who wear contact lenses are cheating in life. Most Americans also have very few concerns about artificial hearts or ironically enough the possibility that Floyd Landis might try to compete in cycling with an artificial hip some time in the future.

In fact, Bo Jackson is a particularly interesting case. He’s generally celebrated for trying to play baseball with an artificial hip, yet there are some who point out that the condition may have been brought on by steroid use in the first place (Bo Jackson sued over the latter claims and got an apology, by the way). While it seems easier to draw a line between enhancements and drugs that are “therapeutic” in nature or that address deficits and those that bring one fame and fortune because they let you perform beyond the norm, the line is far fuzzier than people realize.

Consider the example of amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius' story. Prosthetics have now advanced to the point where a double amputee has a significant advantage over a single amputee sprinter. The basic idea is that you can lengthen the stride dramatically by producing very long artificial lower legs. With a single amputee, there’s an upper limit on the length of the prosthetic. Some experts believe that double amputee sprinters will soon be competitive with world class “natural” sprinters and could potentially surpass them.

About Chancelucky

  • Matthew T. Sussman

    I for one welcome our futuristic cyborg athlete overlords.

  • chancelucky

    I was thinking they’ll look like Will Smith’s character in I Robot.

    I do want to mention that I didn’t go into the “fairness” issue. Maybe there is a problem with the chemically enhanced not disclosing how they got there. Also, steroid use in particular presents serious health dangers, though I’m not aware of problems with things like blood doping or testosterone manipulation..

  • Christopher Rose

    The potential for genetic or surgical enhancement is only just beginning to unfold. It seems quite probable that humans are going to experience some absolutely massive physiological and mental changes as gene manipulation technologies start to enter the mainstream. I for one can’t wait!

  • chancelucky

    It does make me think about Neandrathals and Cro Magnons….and how the Cro Magnons seemed to out-survive the Neandrathals. Also, I susppose it’s the plot of 2001.

  • Heloise

    I prefer Lance Armstrong. I did not like the looks of Landis from the first and don’t like him now.

    Will he loose the title? If they found synthetic testosterone in his blood tests then it will be a simple hop, skip and jump to his falling off the winner’s block.


  • chancelucky

    There were some who argued that Armstrong’s chemo actually wound up giving him a competitive advantage (not that having cancer would be somethoing any sane person would bring on himself/herself to win a bicycle race, but then look at Lyle Alzado and steroids).

    I’m not sure what will happen to Landis. Someone once told me that if you owe the bank a hundred thousand dollars, you’re just a customer. When you owe the bank 10 million dollars, you’re their partner. Given the precarious state of cycling, Landis might be a partner which may affect the result.

  • Bliffle

    Perhaps athletes should simply have external prosthetic devices, e.g., metal arms actuated by computer scanners. Then the true sports fan could cheer for products by brand name, as is their wont.

  • chancelucky

    We already do have an increasingly popular sport that meets that description-NASCAR.