In the world of competitive sports, one hundredth of a second – the time it takes for lightning to strike – can define an athlete. One hundredth of a second can mean the difference between winning or losing, fame or anonymity, millions of dollars in endorsements or none. Because we handsomely reward strength, speed, and endurance, athletes are pushed to do anything and everything to gain even the smallest of competitive advantages. Winning is everything – an athlete will train for thousands of hours, hire a world-renowned coach, wear the newest brand of footwear technology, and even inject performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) – just to win.
It is thus no surprise that the advantages athletes cultivate to win have come under a high level of scrutiny. Whether these advantages are lauded or vilified turns on whether they are perceived as natural or unnatural – that is, fair or unfair. But while the public lauds swimming competitively by the age of six, why does it scorn the use of PEDs? Many would-be figure skating champions begin training on the ice before they have even learned to read. In the world of beauty competitions, coloring one’s hair, reshaping one’s nose or implanting silicone is considered normal and even rewarding. Are PEDs any more unnatural? What, indeed, is natural?
In short, PEDs are not the only performance enhancers in sports. It is not immediately obvious that PED-use is fundamentally different or any more unfair than other enhancers. A wealthy or pushy parent, for instance, could be the difference between success or failure. Golf and tennis players are often endowed with wealthy parents capable of affording the high costs associated with the sport, while baseball players such as Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners were hitting baseballs by the age of three in large part due to highly determined fathers. But should overbearing parents be banned as well? Millions of teenagers would probably agree that they should.
PEDs became widely used throughout the sporting world since the 1950s when weight lifters in Russia injected themselves with anabolic steroids. By the end of the decade, elite athletes all over the world had discovered the drugs, and despite stringent testing procedures, PEDs continue to follow the Olympic Games, the Tour de France, Major League Baseball, and other professional and amateur sports. PEDs can range from anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, sedatives, to even certain types of painkillers. Anabolic steroids are by far the most common drugs in the sporting world as their short-term benefits are relatively easy to replicate: strength and stamina are significantly enhanced. Anabolic steroids increase the production of proteins and substantially reduce recovery time by blocking the effects of the stress hormone cortisol on muscle tissue . They also affect the number of cells that develop into fat-storage cells by favoring cellular differentiation into muscle cells instead, and they reduce fat by increasing the body’s base metabolic rate . Steroids are membrane permeable and thus operate by affecting the nucleus of cells directly, penetrating the membrane of the target cell and binding to the androgen receptor located within the cytoplasm . The compound hormone-receptor then diffuses into the nucleus, where it alters the expression of genes or activates processes that send signals to other parts of the cell .
While the benefits are enticing, many argue that the risks of biological alterations caused by PEDs heavily outweigh their benefits. For athletes, the risks range from mood swings to infertility . For the pastimes they participate in, the risks involve an erosion of credibility and confidence in the idea of fairness, the foundation of all competitive sports.
But are competitive sports truly fair? The fact is that there has always been a certain degree of unfairness inherent in athletic contests. The general consensus in the scientific community is that elite athletic performance is a complex fitness phenotype substantially determined by genetic potential . Research over the past decades has revealed a strong correlation between the natural genetic makeup of athletes and elite sporting status. Although training and nutrition significantly contribute to sporting performance, such factors alone are not sufficient; most students at the University of Chicago, for instance, will never achieve elite athlete status however hard they train. Athletes endowed with such genetic traits as cardio-respiratory and skeletal muscle efficiency will inevitably perform at higher levels of endurance .
For example, several studies have shown that sprint and endurance performance is affected by different genotypes of the gene encoding angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE). The ACE gene has two alleles, termed “I” and “D;” the I allele is associated with lower ACE activity resulting in endurance  and efficiency of muscle contraction . An increased frequency of the ACE I allele has been observed in elite endurance athletes . In contrast, an increased frequency of the ACE D allele is associated with elite sprint performance . It is likely that there is a trade-off between sprint and endurance traits as performance in the 100 meter sprint (which relies on explosive power and fast fatigue-susceptible muscle fibers), is negatively correlated with performance in the 1,500 meter race (which requires endurance and fatigue resistant slow fiber activity) .
Genetically, it is inevitable that some athletes simply perform better in certain areas of athleticism or are capable of enduring pain and physical stress more efficiently than their opponents. The use of PEDs, then, may be an attempt to provide a level playing field amongst disparate opponents. It may, on the other hand, deepen the already existing performance gap among athletes by favoring those with access to wealthy parents, coaches and sponsors. In any case, the question of whether PEDs are any more unnatural than the existing genetic gap still remains. In a world where athletes are pressured to do anything and everything to win, the unfair and unnatural boundaries of competitive advantages continue to be pushed.
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Evan WooSuk Choi is a third-year student at the University of Chicago pursuing a double major in political science and economics. Please join The Triple Helix Online on Facebook. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter.