I love the Olympics, especially the Summer Games. I cannot wait for the ultimate in human sporting events.  The test of speed, strength, endurance and most importantly, will. In my fantasies, I have always been an elite athlete instead of what I really am: a hamster on the treadmill at my local gym.

And yet hanging over every Olympic games is the shadow of enhancements. I was reminded of all of the possibilities available to athletes to unfairly enhance themselves to the medal podium by this Nature piece “Performance enhancement: Superhuman athletes“. Dedicated to enhancements available now and in the future, this article may make it seem to the reader like human enhancements are inevitable. It even mentions the old, fallacious, “everybody’s doing it” argument made by many:

But others argue that enhancers have become so prevalent that the only realistic option is for the sporting authorities to let athletes use what they want, as long as they do it safely.

“If the goal is to protect health, then medically supervised doping is likely to be a better route,” says Andy Miah, a bioethicist at the University of the West of Scotland in Ayr. “Better yet, the world of sport should complement the World Anti-Doping Agency with a World Pro-Doping Agency, the goal of which is to invest in safer forms of enhancement.”

Such enhancements would create a whole new set of sports:

According to [Hugh Herr, a biomechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology], 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.

And yet lost in the talk of the many possible enhancements that could make athletes stronger and faster is the the whole point of sport. What good is it to go faster or be stronger if these are measures of upgrades instead of dedication and perseverance?

Bill McKibben, in his book Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, thinks that “Sport is the canary in a miner’s cage.” If athletes engineer themselves to be superhuman, “It’s not the personal challenge that will disappear.  It’s the personal.”

McKibben remembers his battle to finish a marathon and what enhancements mean for sport in general:

When it was done, I had a clearer sense of myself, of my power and my frailty. For a period of hours, and especially those last gritty miles, I had been absolutely, utterly present, the moments desperately, magnificently clarified.  As meaningless as [my finish] was to the world, that’s how meaningful it was to me.  I had met parts of myself I’d had never been intoduced to before, glimpsed more clearly strengths and flaws I’d half expected….

And yet it is entirely possible that we will be among the last generations to feel that power and that frailty…

Right now we think of our bodies (and our minds) as givens; we think of them as us, and we work to make of them what we can. But if they become equipment-if your heart and lungs (and eventually your character) are a product of engineering-then running becomes like driving….the skill, the engagement, the meaning reside mostly in those who design the machines….

No one needs to run in the twenty-first century. Running is an outlet for sport, for finding out who you are, no more mandatory than art or music. It is a voluntary beauty, a grace. And it turns out to be a fragile beauty. Its significance depends on the limitations and wonders of our bodies as we have known them. Why would you sign up for a marathon if it was a test of the alterations some embryologist made in you, and a million others? If 3 hours and 20 minutes was your design spec? We’ll still be able to run hard; doubtless we’ll even hurt.

McKibben’s poignant sentiment is echoed in the Nature piece by an amateur athlete:

An amateur cyclist, Murray is among the many sports fans appalled by the seemingly endless string of doping scandals that result. “I could probably do a four-mile climb much better with EPO,” he says, “but I could also do it much better if I put a motor on my bike.” That’s not the point of sport, he says, and neither are drugs — an attitude shared by the International Olympic Committee and just about every other professional and amateur sports organization.

As sport goes, the rest of humanity is likely to follow, so I hope that attitude continues. That way we can continue to enjoy sport for what it should be: as much a test of the human body as of the human heart.

Rebecca Taylor blogs at Mary Meets Dolly