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I stumbled across an interesting article this morning while surfing the net (btw, I also recently was informed that saying I'm 'surfing' the net shows my age - appearantly kids are not using this term) that just touches on the issue of what is and is not performance enhancing in relation to high performance competative athletes.  For no particular reason I've thought recently about the subject and wondered if things are as black and white as we'd like them to be.  For sure if a competitor uses a substance that is banned that's just plain cheating.  Well actually even that can get muddled in gray areas where the athlete says, for instance, that everyone including his sanctioning organization is privately condoning banned performance enhancing drugs while publicly condeming them, so he's effectively being told doing the drugs is both right and wrong at the same time, and the resulting message has more to do with not getting caught.

That whole barrel of monkeys aside I've thought about how elite athletes are obviously born with enherent physical advantages over others and in this day and age they then further enhance those advantages through specialized training, nutrition, all sorts of legal suppliments, and a meriad of other techniques available only to the previlaged.  I caught a glimpes of this in my track and field days when we took things like caffiene and dextrosol pills to push thru hard workouts with a burst of additional energy, had various machines hooked up to our bodies to record various matrices and to tell us how to improve further based on our particular physical make-up, and so on.  At some point I felt a bit like what was deemed an illegal enhancement vs. a legal enhancement seemed somewhat arbitrary.

At any rate, I'm not really trying to draw a conclusion here, nor is the article below, but it was an interesting, quick read:

Taken from Christopher Wanjek
LiveScience's Bad Medicine Columnist
LiveScience.com christopher Wanjek
livescience's Bad Medicine Columnist
Wed Nov 18, 4:35 am ET

While the debate continues over whether Caster Semenya, the 18-year-old South African track sensation who blew away the field and took the gold in the women's 800-meter in Berlin in August, is a man or a woman, we soon must confront an even more complex issue: Are elite athlete humans or androids?

International Association of Athletics Federations will decide Semenya's fate later this week as it announces the result of her gender test. Semenya will no longer be able to compete as a female if the association rules that a hormonal imbalance resulting from alleged intersexuality offers her an unfair advantage.

But if a little extra testosterone is a problem, what then do we do about the myriad performance-enhancing drugs and devises that athletes experiment with to go just a little longer, faster or higher?

Such is the topic of two new books from Johns Hopkins University Press, "The Price of Perfection," by Maxwell Mehlman, and "Performance-Enhancing Technologies in Sports," edited by Thomas Murray, Karen Maschke and Angela Wasunna.

Relative unfair advantage

Semenya's provocative case can provide a foundation for what is perceived as an unfair advantage. All top athletes, after all, have an advantage over non-athletes. They're bigger, stronger or faster. That's why they are athletes.

Lance Armstrong allegedly has unusually long femur bones for his height, which gives him better leverage when he pedals. Michael Phelps has a proportionally longer wingspan and size-14 feet that bend at the ankle 15 degrees more than most people, turning his feet into flippers. I'm a skinny freak who can't swim. Is that fair?

What, then, does Semenya have that other women don't have? To what degree do elite female athletes have male characteristics in terms of hormone balance and the distribution of muscle fiber and mass? And where do you draw the line?

I, Robot

If the sex topic isn't complicated enough, let's move on to where most athletes have been moving for sometime - to the realm of superhuman and robotic capabilities through biological, chemical and technological enhancement.

According to Melman in "Price of Perfection," most people today, if they chose, can improve their eyesight beyond 20/20 perfection through surgery; improve concentration and memory through various drugs; increase muscle mass by at least 40 percent through various chemical concoctions; and surgically reshape their body beyond recognition.

While this might sound like a vain pursuit, the impetus for such technology has been to make people healthier. Who could criticize a procedure to enable a blind person to see or a person with dementia or depression to think more clearly, for example?

Similarly, in the near future, most people will be able to alter their body at a genetic level. One goal in medicine is to make treatments more personalized, and this will entail altering the genetic constitution of your body to cure cancer, heart disease, diabetes and the scores of other chronic conditions that shorten lives.

So, when does this good technology cross the line? Should LASIK be banned for the athlete wanting an unfair advantage to see more clearly?

Super-conditioning a reality

As relayed in "Performance-Enhancing Technologies in Sports," there's trouble on the horizon. Barry Bonds and steroids is just the tip of the iceberg. The technologies mentioned in Melman's book - such as bionic body parts, chemical supplements, genetic "doping" and privileged access to equipment and training facilities - will be so pervasive that governing sports bodies will be unable to agree on what constitutes natural and fair.

In a series of essays written by academics, many of whom were elite athletes, "Performance-Enhancing Technologies in Sports" examines the nature and history of competition and the world of the athlete, from trainers and doctors to the sponsors and even governments who control their fate. The editors hope that their frank presentation of the issues from various perspectives will inspire intelligent discussion about the radical changes in sports upon us now.

Both books delve into the complexity of the performance-enhancement topic with athletic dexterity, and the depth of issues will surely leave your head spinning. But if you're genetically inferior like me and are prone to vertigo, there's medicine for that now.

On a sort-of-related subject I also came across an article today on the 'blade runner' who has been in the news in the last few years because he wants to compete in the Olympics using two prosthetic legs.  While I commend the guy for pushing himself to his own personal limits in spite of his physical adversity it always struck me that his springy, carbon fiber limbs provided an absurd advantage when competing in a 400m sprint and that it was utterly illogical to think that he could compete fairly alongside 'normal' bodies. 

Now a new study comes out that concludes his legs provide him with a 10 second advantage over 400 meters!  His actual pb is a little more than 46 seconds, so if adjusted to account for his advantage (if this study is indeed accurate) his 'real' time would be an unbelievably slow 56 seconds.  I could run that in grade 10 in conventional running shoes on a concrete track with no specific training. What the heck?

My question is if Mr. Pistorious is allowed to compete in the Olympics (though he's yet to beat the qualifying time even with his prosthetic legs)  how long will it be before someone else elects to amputate their lower legs in favour of performance enhancing carbon fiber legs.  Sounds crazy and disturbing, but considering what all kinds of athletes are pumping into their veins right now it might not be as nuts as it sounds.

Here's the article: http://ca.news.yahoo.com/s/capress/091118/health/health_ath_pistorius_new_study
Hey Scott.  Interesting articles and some definite 'gray area' discussions to be had here.

Complete fairness is often hard to achieve in competition (judges, lane choice, time of day, wind conditions changing, flat tires, crazy fans getting in the way, different drug rules in varying countries, etc), but when it is 'obvious' to the average person that someone has an unrealistic advantage or their 'enhancements' are dangerous to themselves (health), then the governing sport bodies need to step in and make things 'fair', safe and better examples of real sporting competition for all.

I am glad the 'blade runner' will not be competing in the regular Olympics though ... I admire his tenacity, but he doesn't belong racing against people not 'equipped' like him.

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