Sunday, December 03, 2006

On Performance Enhancement

Suppose there was a pill out there that people could take to make them smarter. Maybe it was illegal, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it had negative side-effects. Regardless, I’m willing to bet the ranch that there would be a large demand for such a pill even if it cut life expectancy by a decade.

And if a scientist were to take that pill and make a major scientific discovery I sincerely doubt that the Nobel Prize committee would somehow ban that person from receiving a prize. There would be little in the way of other scientists being in uproar that the discovery was “juiced.”

Similarly, if an artist takes hallucinatory drugs that enhance his creativity, no one is being critical of the fact that his inspiration isn’t “natural.” If anything, artists' reputations seem to be enhanced when they admit to using drugs to spur their art.

The fact is that we the public resort to medicine and pharmacology for many non-life threatening issues. Don’t like your nose? Change it. Want 20/20 vision? Laser it. Having problems in the bedroom? Viagrate it. It’s an accepted part of society to enhance our physical attributes by any means necessary. No one is banning Pamela Anderson from photo shoots because her breasts are fake.

There seems to be one area of human activity where drugs are considered taboo. Sports. We don’t want our athletes to win loaded on performance-enhancing drugs. It’s OK for them to start their training at the age of two driven by mentally-touched parents desperately looking for a cash cow. It’s fine for them to engage in nutritional regimens designed by experts that charge an arm and leg for their services.

But when it comes to drugs that enhance endurance or strength we say no.

The taboo we place on drugs like EPO and steroids places a direct conflict between the athlete and overseeing bodies. The drugs are readily available. They help athletes win. The end result is that athletes try to cheat. Many of them succeed.

For example, the track and field performances of Florence Griffith-Joyner in the 1988 Olympics were phenomenal. Her world sprint records have yet to be broken. I invite you to look at pictures of her from that time. Look at her physique and tell me with a straight face that she wasn’t on steroids. Steroids work.

Similarly, the baseball players Mark McGuire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa underwent tremendous changes in their physiques in the middle of their careers. The end result was a prodigious increase in their home run totals. Because I’m a baseball fan (it’s about the only sport I watch) and a numbers guy, I’ve done some analysis of their home run prowess. It suggests that none of them would have hit more than 50 home runs in a year without steroids. Roger Maris would still have his record, albeit with the strange asterisk that was attached to it long ago.

Because drugs work so well at enhancing performance, we play a game of cat and mouse. New drugs are created to evade detection. New lab techniques are created to identify the new drugs. Even newer drugs are created to yet again stymie detection.

Perhaps this cat and mouse game represents the best that can be done given the public’s wish to believe that extraordinary performances are “pure.” And while I too would like to see drug-free athletes, my own view is that we’ve long since past that time.

Personally, I’m not a fan of lifestyle/appearance/performance enhancement through medicine. My own view is that Kesey/Burroughs et al. would have written better novels had they avoided drugs. My nose, lord knows, is my own. My glasses/contacts work perfectly fine. My interaction with fake breasts suggests to me that a woman is better off without them. And as for Viagra, I’ll worry about that bridge when I come to it.

But if someone wants to use medicine to help them feel better about themselves, that’s their prerogative. And if athletes want to win so badly that they inject themselves with every chemical under the sun, that too is their prerogative. For example, Barry Bonds is the best ballplayer I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a lot of them; he’d still be a Hall of Fame caliber ballplayer without steroids. I could care less about the content of the creams he uses to soothe his aching muscles.

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And with that, I’m off this site for awhile. I have too much other writing to do.

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