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Should the X-men have a go?

By Ellie Tzortzi
August 29, 2004 15:41 IST
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A pole vaulter clears 25 metres and the 100 metres final is over in 2.9 seconds. "It's like watching the X-men," a spectator gasps.

It could be the future.

The Athens Games is the first Olympics following the introduction of a global anti-doping code.

But doping has still featured prominently on headlines, from two Greek sprinters missing tests the night before the opening ceremony, to a Puerto Rican wrestler being expelled the night before the closing ceremony.

But while officials might be updating banned drugs lists, pledging zero-tolerance and worrying about the impact of doping scandals on the Games' image, athletes are a different story.

For Bob Goldman, doctor and founder of the U.S. National Academy of Sports Medicine, his research into athlete's attitudes towards doping paints a bleak picture.

"When I first did my survey in 1983, I was shocked to see that out of 198 world-class athletes, 52 percent would be willing to give up their life for five years of an undefeated run of wins," Goldman told Reuters.

"I have since repeated the survey a number of times and the number comes out about the same, which is shocking in that some of the athletes are only 16 years old. To be willing to die at 21 is a serious psychological mindset that must be addressed."

The reasons are obvious considering the demographics of many athletes, who often come from poor backgrounds where the only chance for a better life or an education might go through a good race time and a sports scholarship.

"With a world championship or gold medal, athletes can gain large multi-million dollar endorsement deals and contracts well beyond the imagination of sports people of the past," Goldman said. "The illusion of this, and temptation, is just too strong for many".


"Many athletes are still skirting the tests despite the diligent efforts of dope control officers," Goldman adds, "it's a very challenging game of cat and mouse."

"However with the advent of gene therapy, athletes of future Olympics will have the capacity to make steroids and the like look like peanuts".

So-called gene doping sees long-lasting synthetic genes in the athlete's body producing high amounts of naturally occurring muscle-building chemicals, indistinguishable from the natural counterparts and generated locally in the muscle tissue.

There is no banned substance to detect in a blood or urine sample, and the testers are foiled.

There is no evidence that such sophisticated technology was at play at the Athens Olympics, but there is a hint that money can buy drugs cheats some pretty good cover.

Almost every athlete caught at the Games so far has been from poor Asian or ex-Soviet block countries, the substances they used often laughably old-fashioned. No athlete from the richer Western sporting powerhouses has tested positive.

"As the technology of enhancement gets more sophisticated -- the age of gene doping is not far off -- the testing authorities may simply not be able to catch up," said Eric Cohen, editor of The New Atlantis, a U.S. journal on technology and ethics.

So why not just give up, call a free-for-all, let the athletes take full responsibility for their life or death, and sit back and watch where the new human limits lie?

"The problem is not merely that there will be suspicion behind every medal, it is that sport will become simply entertainment," Cohen said. "Athletes will become more like animals bred for the race than human beings rising to the occasion".

But there might be a catch for the squeamish.

"Even if steroids were legal and available to everyone," Cohen adds, "wouldn't we see sports differently if we watched all the runners shoot up just before the gun went off?"

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Ellie Tzortzi
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