We make a lot of noise about fair competition and the unfairness of doping, hormonal treatments or other chemical advantages, but let’s consider the issue from another perspective:
If tomorrow the world were threatened by a significant event, such as an asteroid impact, supervolcano eruption, or – dare I say it – confrontation with extraterrestrials, what version of human would we want to confront that danger with? The fully optimized, chemically altered superman a la Lance Armstrong, or the ‘fair play’ human with whatever natural balance of fast-twitch muscle or endorphins evolution has gifted him or her with?
This is a serious question, because it gets at the heart of the whole doping conflict. If you think you’d prefer mankind’s chances with the unaltered version, you’re either delusional or (at best) suggesting there’s something in our natural imperfection that would better qualify us for survival.
I’ll get back to the latter point later. First, a word on natural selection, our planet, and our universe: the forces that created us are also trying to kill us. More precisely, the apparent statistical anomaly of intelligent life in the Universe suggests strongly that a) the odds against our coming into existence in the first place are astronomical and b) that the odds of our continued existence are hardly better. So before there is talk of ‘mother nature/natural selection knows best’, consider that mother nature could care less about intelligent life, here or anywhere. In other words, when considering our survival, we need all the help we can get, natural or chemical.
Now, to get back to the idea of the inherent advantages of not tampering with our genetics or conditioning – this is an argument born out of the imperfections of the current state of doping / steroid treatments. It is indubitably true that looking like Barry Bonds or Arnold Schwarzenegger is not a unilateral advantage, and that anabolic steroids in particular have a number of unfortunate and unhappy side effects. But at the same time – as the cycling circuit is now proving – it is possible to look quite small, in fact, and still possess extraordinary aerobic and/or anaerobic fitness. Further, it should be pointed out that ‘natural’ weight training and dietary improvements, which have succeeded in pushing human development far beyond even the farthest bounds of previous standards of size, weight, and strength – these are scientific improvements just as much as the ‘illegal’ chemical treatments, and they also have significant physiological drawbacks (overtraining, resulting in muscle tears / shin splints / premature aging of joints etc.). And yet few people decry them as dead ends in the evolution of human development. As a result, while current chemical methods may be flawed, these are flaws that must be worked out in further development and not in avoiding the topic completely.
Further, the hazards and challenges that space travel presents – in terms of muscle atrophication and the difficulty of maintaining basic fitness – suggest that extraordinary solutions must be created and deployed in order to allow the exploration of our system (and perhaps eventually beyond). Fundamentally, it seems at present unlikely that we, in our current form, could make it far off this planet, and as numerous philosophers and astronomers have pointed out, this more than likely means extinction, perhaps sooner rather than later.
Finally, while I am a huge sports fan and completely understand the impetus to deride artificial performance enhancement as ‘cheating’ (which it is, under current rules, and which creates inequalities between richer and poorer athletes), it is worth noting that, at some point in the future when we are all eternally young, good-looking, and well-muscled, we just might owe a significant debt of gratitude to the Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds of the 2000s; after all, they were willing – albeit for significant financial gain – to be guinea pigs when the technologies in question were far from proven, and far from safe. This is not to say that these technologies should not be carefully watched and controlled (a major cause of the conflict in Hard Drop, after all, is caused by irresponsible experimentation in this area), but it is to say that we should not – perhaps even must not – shelve the conversation.