Imagining the Super-Enhanced Athlete of the Future

As the London 2012 Olympics get set to start next week, experts and fans alike are anticipating a showcase of seemingly greater-than-human performances. But with the strict prohibition against performance-enhancing drugs and gear, some sports pundits are predicting that few records will be broken — and that realization has prompted some people to wonder what might happen, if athletes were actually allowed to enhance themselves.

One person who feels that performance enhancement should be allowed is Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu. Speaking to the German magazine, Spiegel, Savulescu recently called for an ‘open market' on doping, citing the unrealistic demands wrought by the prohibition.

Imagining the Super-Enhanced Athlete of the Future

"The war on doping must inevitably fail, because the incentive for the athletes is just too high," he told Spiegel's Markus Becker, "The potential profit is huge, the chance of getting caught is rather small and largely a question of money." Instead of supporting bans, he argued, people should create an open market for enhancement in which physicians would supervise the process and sanction only the use of substances that are considered safe.

But when asked if genetic therapies and neurological enhancement should be allowed, Savulescu has this to say:

Genetic manipulations should be ruled out at this stage because they would fundamentally change the equation and could make sports uninteresting. The same is true for neuro-enhancers, which shorten reaction times, for example. Substances like steroids, however, only augment what you do anyway.

Looking further into the future, and anticipating the day when all restrictions may be dropped, Nature's Helen Thompson has considered some of the more radical possibilities.

In addition to such things as steroids, human growth hormone, and blood doping, Thompson also speculates about the potential for gene doping (where athletes add or modify genes), and advanced drugs that could alter such things as a person's fast and slow twitch fibres.

But more radically, she also considers the potential for more transhumanist-like modifications. After speaking to bioethicist Andy Miah, Thompson writes:

Imagining the Super-Enhanced Athlete of the Future

Miah sees potential in more imaginative surgical enhancement. "Consider using skin grafts to increase webbing between fingers and toes to improve swimming capacity," he says. "These kinds of tweaks to our biology are likely ways that people would try to gain an edge over others." Another frontier is nanotechnology, adds Miah. Researchers are already experimenting with blood supplements based on oxygen-carrying nanoparticles for use in emergency situations. From there, he says, "there is a lot of discussion about the possibility of biologically infused nano­devices that could perpetually maintain certain thresholds of performance".

Mechanical prosthetics are already a reality, such as the ‘cheetah-style' legs used by amputees including Oscar Pistorius from South Africa, a Paralympic gold medallist who was approved this month to run in the 2012 Olympics. But scientists are split on whether current artificial limbs actually confer an advantage over the flesh and blood variety.

Regardless, writes Thompson, technologies may get around any potential limitations or problems posed by advanced prostheses:

"Stepping decades into the future, I think one day the field will produce a bionic limb that's so sophisticated that it truly emulates biological limb function. That technology will be the Olympic sanctioned limb," says [biomechanical engineer Hugh] Herr, whose lab at MIT is currently working on a bionic running leg. "Without any such human-like constraints, the Paralympics limb will become [the basis of] this human–machine sport like racecar driving."

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."

Be sure to read the full articles in Spiegel and Nature.

Top image via sabc.co.za. Inset images via LanceSupport and Ossur.com.