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Scientists Explain How an All Drug Olympics Could Create the Greatest Athletes Ever

If we let athletes dope all they want, just how big, fast and strong can they really get?

Even with drugs, most people will never look like this guy. Image: Caza_No_7

When 16-year old Ye Shiwen swam the last 50 meters of her freestyle leg in the 400 meter relay faster than the men’s winner in that same event, rumors immediately began to fly: she must have been doping. Shiwen swam that last 50 meters in 28.93 second, faster than Ryan Lochte, the American who won that same event. And perhaps most suspiciously, Shiwen’s time was a full seven seconds faster than her previous best.

London will also see Dwain Chambers race for the first time on the Olympic stage since he was caught doping in 2003. Chambers used six different substances to build his blazing sprinting speeds.

Shiwen has been tested for performance enhancing drugs, and passed, but what if we allowed Olympic athletes to dope? Nature recently asked, would that mean we could build the most powerful human ever?

The quest for ultimate enhancement is as old as the games: the Greek physician Galen passed on knowledge from the ancient games to the Romans, praising the effects of eating herbs, mushrooms and testicles. But Chambers’ story is just one example of how today’s competitors are taking that quest to a whole new level.

If athletes were allowed to take them, how far could performance-enhancing techniques push the human body?

It’s hard to know, but Nature summarizes key results for steroids:

  • anabolic steroids can cause a 38% increase in strength in men
  • human growth hormone can give sprinters 4% more sprinting capacity
  • erythropoeitin (EPO) can increase an endurance athlete’s stamina by 34% and shave 44 seconds off their eight kilometer time
  • nitrate allows divers to hold their breath for 11% longer
  • experimental gene doping gives mice 14% more strength and 70% more endurance

These DNA enhancements are relatively new and controversial. In 2000, New Scientist imagined the 2008 Olympics, in which athletes were all gene doping:

Though the Olympic flame still burns in the stadium, these athletes are nothing like their heroic predecessors. Athletes of old honed their bodies with toil and sweat, but at the 2008 games most of the champions have altered their genes to help them excel at their sport. Weightlifters’ arms and sprinters’ thighs bulge as never before, and long-distance runners have unparalleled stamina—all the result of a few crucial genetic upgrades. Officials are well aware that such “gene doping” is going on, but as the practice is virtually undetectable, they are powerless to stop it.

This may sound like the ultimate sporting nightmare, but the technology to make it come true could well arrive even before 2008. Scientists around the world are working to perfect gene therapies to treat genetic diseases. Soon, unscrupulous athletes may be able to use them to re-engineer their bodies for better performance.

We’re not there yet, really, but scientists are working on it. Scientific American recently wondered about whether gene doping was happening at London’s Olympics:

Gene manipulation is a big wild card at this year’s Olympics, Roth says. “People have been predicting for the past several Olympics that there will be gene doping at the next Olympics, but there’s never been solid evidence.” Gene therapy is often studied in a medical context, and it fails a lot of the time, he notes. “Even if a gene therapy is known to be solid in terms of treating a disease, when you throw it into the context of athletic performance, you’re dealing with the unknown.”

Of course, these increases aren’t cost free, notes Nature:

Most of these performance enhancements come with a slew of side effects, however. Steroids can cause high blood pressure, thickening of the heart valves, decreased fertility and libido, and changes such as chest hair in women and shrunken testicles in men. And boosting the number of red blood cells thickens the blood, increasing the risk of having a stroke.

And then there’s the next level all together – really building a super human. Grafting skin between fingers and toes to increase swimming capacity. Using bionic parts like Oscar Pistorius’s carbon fiber legs. Replacing eyes for better eyesight.

It is at this point that humans have to ask themselves what the Olympics is really about, and whether science should be allowed to improve the human body as fast and as much as it possibly can or not. Hugh Herr, a biomechanics engineer at MIT:

According to Herr, performance-enhancing technologies will advance to a point at which they will not only extend human limits, they will demand an Olympics all of their own. “For each one there will be a new sport — power running, and power swimming, and power climbing,” projects Herr. “Just like the invention of the bicycle led to the sport of cycling. What we’ll see is the emergence of all kinds of new sports.”

But it’s not all just a numbers game about the biggest and the strongest and the fastest, says Scientific American.

The Olympic games make clear that all athletes are not created equal, but that hard work and dedication can give an athlete at least an outside chance of victory even if competitors come from the deeper end of the gene pool. “Elite performance is necessarily a combination of genetically based talent and training that exploits those gifts,” Roth says. “If you could equalize all environmental factors, then the person with some physical or mental edge would win the competition. Fortunately those environmental factors do come into play, which gives sport the uncertainty and magic that spectators crave.”

The real question is, how much magic are we willing to give up in the name of peak performance.

More at Smithsonian.com:

The Top Athletes Looking for an Edge and the Scientists Trying to Stop Them

Olympic Games at the Smithsonian

The Science of the Olympics

Double-Amputee Oscar Pistorius Will Compete In Olympics 400 Meter Race Without Qualifying

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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