Chemistry, Science, and the Olympics

Chemistry offers two contributions to athletes: (1) creating substances that boost performance; and (2) fashioning analytical tests to detect banned performance-enhancing substances. Not everything in category 1 is prohibited (e.g., vitamins and minerals, bicarbonate, creatine) but many are (e.g., anabolic steroids, erythropoietin, Provigil), so those of a chemical bent are understandably schizophrenic about their role in high level sport.

Chemistry isn’t the only way to advance human performance. There are also surgery, diet, prosthetic devices, training techniques, psychological preparation, advances in equipment or clothing technology, and being blessed with better genes. All may give an advantage in a close athletic contest.

A provocative series of articles in Nature raises the tricky subject of how far we should allow science to go in conferring advantage to an athlete in competition. If all competitors in the 10,000m race used EPO doping there would be no relative advantage to a particular individual, just faster times for the group as a whole. This line of reasoning has led some to suggest that we should allow any manipulation to improve performance as long as it is safe and equally available to all. Others propose separate contests for the “enhanced” and the “normal” athletes. It’s even argued that all world class athletes are “mutants” with an inborn genetic advantage that could be neutralized by gene therapy for people lacking those performance enhancing mutations.

My own view is that we should enjoy human variation in its entire splendor and just simply accept the fact that some people are better than others at practically everything. Some of our fellow humans are talented in sports, others play the violin with great beauty, still others are especially adept at solving equations. So be it. Let each of us find, and then make the effort to develop, whatever natural powers we may have. Science is wonderful and utterly indispensable to contemporary civilization, but unnecessary to liberate the full flowering of innate human potential.

Tom Tritton is President and CEO of CHF.

Episode 26: Performance [Distillations]
Episode 149: Blood [Distillations]

Posted In: Policy | Technology

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