[Paleopsych] SFChron: Coming very soon: A 'Freak Olympics'

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Fri Aug 27 19:41:34 UTC 2004

Coming very soon: A 'Freak Olympics' 
     - David Ewing Duncan
     Sunday, August 22, 2004

     The gods and goddesses of Olympus are back. Stronger, faster and
     sleeker, they're breaking records in stadiums and swimming pools, and
     in Olympian dollars spent and made. They pose in Playboy with buffed
     and sexy bodies.

     In an age when science, money and sports intersect, these new gods are
     more than ever biological machines built to win, although so far they
     are still recognizable as human beings, complete with up close and
     personal back- stories.

     This could change in the next wave of doping technology. Perhaps as
     soon as the 2008 Olympics in China, new gene therapies now being
     tested in animals will be available to athletes who want to cheat.
     These therapies would alter the actual genes of runners, swimmers,
     cyclists and weight lifters -- if the therapies work.

     Even without current-day steroids and other drugs of enhancement, the
     new gods are often products of strict regimens of diet and exercise
     designed by physiologists, nutritionists, biochemists and physicists.
     Visit the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., and
     you walk into a world of multimillion-dollar scientific enhancement as
     much as one of gyms, locker rooms and lap pools.

     Maybe it's time to give in to the inevitable and create a new
     Olympics. Let's call it the "Enhanced Olympics," where athletes take
     advantage of whatever augmentations science has to offer.

     Or would we call it the "Freak Olympics?"

     We'll have juiced-up competitors that make Arnold Schwarzenegger look
     like a wimp lifting three -- no four! -- Volkswagen Beetles
     (Volkswagen being a major sponsor of the games). Women sprinters with
     Arnold's deep voice will break the 7-second barrier in the 100-meter

     Of course, I'm suggesting this in the same vein that Jonathan Swift in
     1729 published his "Modest Proposal,'' a satire that advocated solving
     poverty in Ireland by feeding Irish children to rich English
     landowners. Which is to say that I'm not serious, although we should
     certainly take seriously the possibilities of gene doping.

     In the July issue of Scientific American, Lee Sweeney, professor and
     chairman of physiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of
     Medicine and an expert on muscle physiology, penned an article titled:
     "Gene Doping: Gene therapy for restoring muscle lost to age or disease
     is poised to enter the clinic, but elite athletes are eyeing it to
     enhance performance."

     Sweeney explains how muscle growth and repair are regulated by
     chemical signals controlled by genes. His lab and collaborators at
     Harvard have been studying a protein called Insulin-like Growth Factor
     I, or IGF-I, which increases the number of times muscle cells divide.

     Muscle cells contain special muscle fibers that contract to provide us
     with the skeletal support to sit and move around, and with the sudden
     burst of strength to lift a barbell or to sprint around a track.

     Adding the gene that controls IGF-I to mice has caused muscle cells to
     increase size and strength. This suggests that adding these genes to
     humans suffering from degenerative muscle diseases such as muscular
     dystrophy -- or to astronauts or bed-ridden patients whose muscles are
     atrophying -- will increase strength and muscle mass.

     Adding these genes might also stop the aging process that causes
     muscles to go soft and strength to decrease as old age sets in.

     Gene therapy is controversial, and inserting genes into human bodies
     is a tricky business. Yet Sweeney's techniques would insert artificial
     genes directly into muscles.

     Such muscle-centric therapy means this gene tampering may be
     undetectable by testing blood. The inserted genes join the cell's own
     DNA and appear to be natural -- which makes this the perfect
     stealth-drug for athletes wanting to buff up without getting caught.

     Nearly everyone agrees the abuse of these treatments for athletics is
     reprehensible. It's cheating, it demeans competition and it can be
     physically dangerous.

     Yet scores of elite athletes already have been caught cheating and are
     willing to risk their health to skim off an extra millisecond in a
     100-meter dash, or to add an extra few feet to a baseball to push it
     over a fence for a home run.

     This is where the genetic revolution is grabbed whole hog by raw
     ambition and greed. It's co-opted by the promise of fame, glory,
     pictorials in Playboy. And the potential for millions of dollars in
     endorsements for athletes; millions more for coaches, trainers and
     enhancement-scientists; and billions for professional sports leagues
     and the International Olympic Committee.

     Perhaps nothing can be done about this potential new wave of genetic
     enhancements. Scientists need to figure out if they can make gene
     therapy for muscles detectable. Otherwise, we might as well throw in
     the towel and go for the freak show -- although this of course would
     signal acceptance that it's OK for the rest of society to genetically
     enhance to their heart's desire.

     Personally, I'm not thrilled with the idea of my muscles dissolving
     into flab as I grow old. Nor would anyone want to deny
     muscle-enhancing treatments to patients suffering from muscular

     One solution is to make the drugs available to everyone, giving us all
     the strength of Atlas holding up the sky and the swiftness of Hermes
     with wings on our ankles. When and if they're developed, society could
     also make enhancements for intelligence available to every human,
     which will make us all equally enhanced geniuses. Of course, this
     blissful future is hard to imagine on a planet in which millions of
     people don't get enough to eat.

     The Greeks had a word, hubris, meaning excessive pride and arrogance.
     Many myths offer up tales of hubris, of mortals aspiring to be gods,
     including Achilles, who was a half-god who traded fame for a short
     life. And Daedalus, who created wings that allowed him to fly like the
     gods. He was punished by the death of his beloved son, Icarus, who
     flew too close to the sun with his wax wings, crashed and drowned in
     the blue waters of the Aegean Sea, not far from where the Olympics are
     under way in Athens.

     Someday, these 2004 Olympics may be remembered as the last Games
     before the dehumanized gods arrived, a time of innocence when athletes
     actually used the biceps and quadriceps nature provided.

     David Ewing Duncan is a science writer, author of a forthcoming book
     on leading figures in biotechnology and the editorial director of
     BioAgenda, a biotech policy think tank. Its activities and sponsors
     are described at www.bioagendaprograms.com. E-mail Duncan at
     [7]david at davidewingduncan.com.

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