[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
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
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
david at davidewingduncan.com.
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