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January 19, 2004

Fans Indifferent To Performance Enhancers?

FROM UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA MOLECULAR PHYSIOLOGY RESEARCHERS come specially bred Super Mice.  These mice are almost cartoonish in their grotesque, other-worldly musculature.  When compared to normal mice, they do not look like the same animal. They are built like cattle, with thick necks and big haunches, reminiscent of the balloon-like Michelin Man, but on all fours.

These mice were not bulked up by way of super steroids or by high tech diets.  Penn researchers have been making great strides in boosting strength and mitigating the aging process in mice by using gene therapy.  A sort of “fooling with Mother Nature” wizardry akin to cloning, gene therapy is a chilling look at the future of physiological engineering.  It conjures up images of RoboCop and the Six Million Dollar Man.

The ultimate goal for Penn’s researchers is to develop gene therapy techniques that would ultimately better the lives of the elderly, as well as those suffering from “muscle wasting” diseases. Thus far their research has yielded muscle-bound mice specimens that are the age-defying Jack LaLanes of the rat world.

However, a large part of the human population has clamored for gene therapy for use in the here and now, no matter the potential side effects and ethical issues, no matter that it has not been thoroughly tested.  Elite athletes will likely be the most prevalent risk-takers.  The allure of being (and staying) at the top can be irresistible.  This devil-may-care attitude might lead to experimentation with gene therapy to build better athletes to get an edge on the competition. 

Due to the lack of widespread drug testing in most sports—and the ongoing efforts to produce undetectable drugs—many sports fans are understandably jaded in their acceptance of the new heights being attained in sports. "You have no clue what you are watching," said Dr. Donald Caitlin, director of the Olympic drug-testing lab at UCLA. "It may be clean, it may not be."

Michael Sokolove capsulated the dilemma in his New York Times article: “There is a murky, ‘Casablanca’-like quality to sport at the moment. We are in a time of flux. No one is entirely clean. No one is entirely dirty. The rules are ambiguous. Everyone, and everything, is a little suspect.”

Major League Baseball is a sport without particularly stringent drug testing policies.  Consequently there are many bulked up players and power baseball is thought to be good for the game.  Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa brought matters to a fine focus in their well-publicized home run battle in 1998.  The previous home run records of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris had stood seemingly forever, yet here were two players surpassing the record in the same year.  McGwire admitted to using androstenedione, or andro, a substance that provides a steroidlike effect.  Although andro was not illegal (and still isn’t), it put a blemish on his record nonetheless.

Not surprisingly, a certain distrust of baseball’s records began to surface among fans.  All-Star pitcher Curt Schilling commented on batters’ bizarre physiques when he told Sports Illustrated in 2002, “Guys out there look like Mr. Potato Head, with a head and arms and six or seven body parts that just don't look right.”

Nowadays the 40 year old Barry Bonds is a prodigious power hitting machine.  He could surpass Hank Aaron’s 755 lifetime home runs.  Bonds has become a thickly muscled titan these past few years, but early in his career he was a leadoff hitter. 

Many sports fans are expressing indifference to the usage of performance-enhancing drugs.  A poll by The Denver Post in November 2003 showed that more than half of the respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 would be bothered "only a little" or "not at all" if athletes used performance-enhancing drugs to gain an unfair advantage.  Perhaps fans will view gene therapy techniques in the same manner?

We are a society that views the use of Viagra or Rogaine; or procedures of liposuction, facelifts or breast implants as no big deal.  Therefore, it is believable that we don’t care about performance-enhancing drugs for athletes—as long as players get bigger and run faster.

However, it has become more difficult for a steroid-free athlete to reach the top of his sport.  The clean athlete is at a disadvantage (Carl Lewis anyone?).  Should there be two separate categories in the future?  One for users, and one for non-users?  There have been several precedents for the separation of different groups of competitors to level the playing field.  Separation of men’s and women’s sports, for example.  Or turbocharged and non-turbocharged vehicles in motorsports.  The infamous Roger Maris asterisk.  Division I, II and III classifications.

"In a way, if all the top athletes were on drugs they would all be equal again," said Dr. Caitlin of UCLA. "But then it becomes a competition among pharmacologists. That is anathema to me."

The line between what's legal and illegal for enhancing performance has become a blurry one.  The world wide agency charged with making sure that the world's premier athletes are clean is the World Anti-Doping Agency.  W.A.D.A. has an almost impossible task, because the ambitious cheaters are constantly discovering one undetectable drug after another.  When the good guys finally figure out how to detect a designer drug—as they recently have with THG—that’s nothing when compared to genetic manipulation.

Says Paul Root Wolpe, NASA bioethics chief, “We already are seeing a blurring of the line between foods and drugs, so-called nutraceuticals. In the future, we'll eat engineered foods to be sharp for a business meeting or to enhance endurance before a competition.”


This excerpt was drawn from a feature article—“The Lab Animal”-- by Michael Sokolove from the New York Times Magazine of 1-18-04; plus “Drugs in Sports Creating Games of Illusion” from the New York Times of 11-18-04