Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Olympic Dopes

In case you hadn't heard, the Olympics are in full swing. I can't seem to turn the television on without seeing Bob Costas's rigorously-coifed head. My recent post on cloning has gotten me thinking generally about bioethics, a topic with clear relevance to sporting events. Last week's issue of Nature has an editorial about drug testing and the anti-doping industry. It's interesting, because they point out that like the War on Drugs, which many argue in some cases has increased drug trafficking via clever, motivated smugglers, the rise of drug testing in sports in the 1960s has stimulated an arms race between those regulating and those that attempt to cheat. The authors call for a reevaluation of the anti-doping strategy because it doesn't prevent cheating, only necessitates more sophisticated cheating techniques. When a world-famous athlete like Marion Jones can appear to win several gold medals fairly, only to have them revoked years later upon confession of cheating, there's a problem.

John Tierney at the NYT discusses a mostly serious argument for eliminating anti-doping laws altogether, in a sense opening up sports to a free market of performance enhancement. With the prospect of "gene doping," which involves inserting theoretically untraceable strength-enhancing genes into an athlete's DNA, and other sophisticated techniques, it's clear that more people will be able to cheat undetected in the future.

The point is, the legitimacy of sports hinges on the assumption that everyone is playing fair. The reality is that what the public may view as fun and games, the coaches, team owners, company affiliates, and even athletes see as business (Example: China has spent ~46 billion on the Olympics), and are prepared to do whatever is good for business. Wins equal media attention, advertising dollars, national/political pride, etc - valuable commodities that have nothing to do with the purity or *fun* of the game.

It's interesting to think what sports would be like if the competitors were allowed to do whatever possible to win. I'm not much into sports now, probably for a lot of cynical reasons, but I think I could get into a game featuring genetically modified athletes. Who knows, maybe in twenty years we'll be watching the 1st Mutant Olympics.

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