Performance Enhancing Swimsuits — and Why Not Ban Lance?

It’s kind of hard to understand the justification for banning performance enhancing drugs but allowing all sorts of other performance enhancing technologies. If the major concern is the “integrity of the game,” then high tech swimsuits that reduce drag far more than was possible at previous competitions seems just as unfair as some drug that increases available oxygen. This is why, for example, Major League Baseball has so far resisted using aluminum bats, even though such bats can apparently be configured to have very close to the same properties as wooden bats.

The real kicker there are Nike’s non-goggles — lenses that are affixed to the eye sockets with medical adhesive, eliminating both the protruding nature of goggles as well as the band connecting them to the head. Why not make them permanent and have a Bruce Sterling Olympics?

One of the fascinating things I learned about traditional performance enhancement is how elite cyclists such as Lance Armstrong can actually alter their physiological reaction to lactic acid. As you exercise, lactic acid builds up in your muscles and eventually causes that pain you feel in muscles if you sustain an intense workout.

But using intensive training methods, you can actually raise your body’s tolerance for lactic acid. A number of web sites and news reports suggest that through training Lance Armstrong has an extremely high tolerance of lactic acid — apparently significantly higher than other cyclists (presumably there must be some sort of genetic component to one’s ultimate lactic acid tolerance).

Suppose that tomorrow I invented a completely safe compound whose only major side effect was that it increased your tolerance to lactic acid to the maximum that your genotype allows. Should such a compound be banned? What if I come up with a genetic modification that will push your or Lance Armstrong’s tolerance for lactic acid even further (though not into unsafe ranges)? Would that be cheating?

Perhaps the best answer is a compromise suggested by Gizmodo a few week ago — adding an enhanced category to competitions. So you’d keep the current regimen for non-enhanced athletes, but add an enhanced category without drug or genetic testing and anything goes.


Suit changes take swimmers to new heights. The Associated Press, August 2, 2004.

Maxwell Mehlman: Let the Athletes Take Their Performance Enhancing Drugs

In USA Today, Maxwell Mehlman offers a defense of performance enhancing drugs. As Mehlman notes, most of the arguments offered against performance enhancing drugs just aren’t very compelling. Rather, the argument against PEDs is largely aesthetic,

This leads to an unavoidable conclusion: There is nothing inherently wrong with athletes using relatively safe drugs. People simply find it distasteful. It offends their aesthetic sensibilities.

Make no mistake: Aesthetics are important. Our sense of aesthetics is what allows us to distinguish what is beautiful from what is ugly. It drove XFL football out of existence. But people’s tastes differ. Some fans don’t seem to mind steroid use by professional baseball players, for example, as long as it lets the stars hit more home runs.

Tastes change, as perhaps they will when people realize that the ultimate justification for the policy against all drugs in sports is the same reason that we get upset when the neighbors paint their house purple.

I’m not sure they will change that much. There is one pseudo-athletic area where fans not only tolerate but seem to, by their behavior, encourage steroid use. That, of course, would be in wrestling outlet such as the WWE. Part of the appal of wrestling, as far as I can tell, is people want to see larger than life characters and having exagerrated almost comic book-like muscles adds to that effect (it also tends to kill wrestlers at relatively young ages).

But competitive athletics are a bit different. Part of the attraction of athletics is identifying with the athletes in a way that is very different from wrestling. The use of performance enhancing drugs detracts from that identification, and would, I suspect, make competitive sports less attractive to watch for many people.


What’s wrong with using drugs in sports? Nothing. Maxwell Mehlman, USA Today, August 11, 2004.

The Future Is Right Now for Performance Enhancing Drugs

The BBC had a story about performance enhancing drugs which addresses some of the issues raised a couple years ago in this thread at Seth’s web site about the use of PEDs in cycling (if you don’t follow cycling, the short version is that the sport has had a series of high profile scandals involving the use of performance enhancing drugs).

The main problem with existing PEDs, in my opinion, is that they are not safe. But at the same time, most sports governing bodies also ban drugs that are barely PEDs and that are perfectly safe (like stupidly disqualifying gymnasts because they took OTC cold remedies).

The BBC reports on the International Olympic Committee’s concession that it will not have a test in places before the 2004 Olympics to detect athletes who are using Humane Growth Hormone to enhance their performance. The BBC quotes Olivier Rabin, science director of the World Anti-Dopin Agency, as saying,

HGH is one of the main concerns we have. It’s quite a challenge. There are currently six different countries working on the detection of HGH. We would like to have something in place for the Olympics, but this (attemt at) detection has been going on for years. History has shown that you cannot always get tests ready on time, because science does not move forward smoothly.

In fact, the WADA was supposed to have an HGH test ready for the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

I do not know if HGH can be used safely by athletes to improve their performance, but if it can why should we even try to ban its use anymore than we should try to ban any of the other high tech devices and methods that are used to push human performance well beyond what would have been possible 40 or 50 years ago?

One objection is that if PEDs use is widely distributed, then all the competitors end up at the same relative position afterward. So, for example, if a PED increases a runner’s speed in a 10k race by 15 seconds, then all the competitors will take the drug and end up going 15 seconds faster without much of a shakeout in the order of finishing.

But, again, this seems like an objection that could be levelled at almost any sports innovation. Using 300 lb. linemen in the NFL gave the teams who initially adopted that practice a huge (pun intended) advantage. Today everybody uses 300 lbs. linemen and the relative advantage has disappeared.

Similarly, baseball teams whose players began serious weight training likely enjoyed a small advantage over their competitors, but now that weight training and other conditioning methods are widespread, the relative advantage has disappeared (i.e., all teams — except our pathetic Detroit Tigers — hit home runs today at a level above previous generations, though home runs are still distributed in similar ways between teams).

The bottom line is that people watch sports, in part, to see other human beings reaching and even exceeding their potential. People want to see the baseball star who can hit one or two more home runs in a season than anyone else ever has, or who can run 100 meter just a tenth of a second faster than anyone else in the world has.

Why should we hamper such athletes by banning the use of safe performance enhancing drugs, especially given that the future is likely to see treatments that are a) increasingly safe, b) increasingly effective, and b) like HGH, increasingly hard to detect.

Genetically Enhanced Athletes

The BBC ran a pretty much content free report a few days ago about the dangers of ‘super athletes.’ Apparently some sports scientists (?) at a conference predicted that by 2012, athletes competing in the Olympics could be using genetic engineering to enhance their performance. Of course the sports scientists (oddly enough) advocated for more research to discover these cheaters.

There was a long thread this summer at Seth Dillingham‘s site about the issue of performance enhancing drugs, including the possibility (more likely inevitability) of using genetic engineering to improve sports performance.

For the most part, I don’t see much wrong with performance enhancing drugs and there is no way the Olympics or any other sport is going to be able to keep out genetically engineered athletes for every long. And why should they?

Take a look at the average athlete today in a sport such as football or basketball or cycling, and compare them to the folks who were in those sports as professionals in the 1920s or 1930s. For the most part its no contest — athletes today are far better than they were early in the 20th century due largely to scientific advances.

The next step in improving humanity’s lot is certainly going to involve genetic engineering and will inevitably impact the sports world.

Lance Armstrong, Performance Enhancing Drugs, and Deion Sanders’s Retirement

This weekend I happened to run across ABC News doing a brief bit about Lance Armstrong winning his third straight Tour de France. Of course they couldn’t leave the topic without mentioning long-standing suspicions that Armstrong uses performance enhancing drugs.

ABC falsely reported that Armstrong had flat-out said he doesn’t use such drugs. But they were running clips from an interview in which Armstrong never actually says, “no, I don’t use performance enhancing drugs,” but rather dances around the issue by noting he’s passed all his drug tests, he can look his family in the eye, etc.

He’s so good, that I don’t think it would really matter whether he is or not (I doubt drugs can give him such a huge advantage in quantities that won’t show up in a drug tests).

But the thing I found strange was the cycling world’s position on cortisone — it’s banned, except in very small amounts, by the Tour de France and other races. In fact the press freaked a few years ago when Armstrong tested positive for very small amounts of cortisone — he’d used a cortisone cream to treat a minor injury, and the level in his system was only about 8 percent of the maximum level.

I found that bizarre because in most sports I follow, not only is cortisone not banned, but athletes who don’t take cortisone shots to deal with pain are often looked at as whimps (the actual pejorative used is far more uncouth, but this is a family blog).

In the National Football League, for example, heavy use of pain killing chemicals is considered the norm. In order to get ready for a game that had no playoff implications (because the Dallas Cowboys were already out of contention), Troy Aikman once took an epidural the Monday before the game, followed by several cortisone shots throughout the week, and then another cortisone shot right before the game.

In fact it is very common for players in pain to receive cortisone shots in the locker room during halftime. In a completely meaningless game between the 2-6 Cincinnati Bengals and the 2-7 Cleveland Browns last October, for example, Cincinnati quarterback Akili Smith received a cortisone at halftime to alleviate pain in his knee (which was an incredibly stupid thing to do IMO).

Anyway, Armstrong is obviously much better than the other racers in the Tour de France and once athletes get to that level, often the psychological aspects of the sport become as interesting as the physical aspects. I saw an interview where Armstrong was describing how he fooled the other riders into thinking he was tiring on one of the more mountainous legs of the race, only to blow away the field at the end.

That reminded me of a story I heard Deion Sanders tell a reporter. Whatever else you think of Sanders, who announced his retirement this week (and he was certainly never much of an inspiration or role model), he was clearly the best corner back ever to play in the National Football League. He was so good, in fact, that quarterbacks would sometimes simply refuse to throw to the receiver on the side of the field he was covering.

So Sanders had a plan. He’d run his first few man coverages so there was no way the quarterback would be foolish enough to throw the ball, but also so it looked like that’s all the speed he had. Once he had sold that routine a couple of times, he’d run with the receiver and pull up a half-step or so, making it look like the receiver had him beat.

As soon as that football left the quarterback’s arm, then Sanders would quick in the speed leaving the receiver and quarterback wondering what just happened. Of course the cockiness Sanders had to have to pull that off didn’t exactly translate well off-the-field, but it’s one of the reasons he returned almost 17 percent of his interceptions back for a touchdown, not to mention the all-time NFL record for touchdowns on returns (fumbles, kickoffs, punts and interceptions).

Olympic Travesty: Give Andreea Raducan Her Medal Back

An arbitrator yesterday ruled against Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan, meaning she won’t get her gold medal back after it was stripped by Olympics officials when Raducan failed a drug tests. This whole affair represents the mean-spiritedness and tyrannical bureaucracy of the Olympics committee at its worst.

Raducan tested positive for pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient in cold medicine — Raducan was given a cold pill that contained the drug by a trainer. Stripping a gold medal for this makes no sense when you consider that,

  • Raducan had no idea she was even taking a drug containing pseudoephedrine
  • the trainer who gave it to her probably didn’t realize it was banned, since no other gymnastics competition bans pseudoephedrine — had she tested positive for the drug at the world championships rather than the Olympics, the result wouldn’t have even been announced
  • the reason it’s not banned anywhere but the Olympics, at least for gymnastics, is that even the Olympic folks conceded there is no performance enhancing benefit from taking pseudoephedrine for a gymnast

This appears to be a case of simply banning a drug because the IOC can, and robbing a talented young woman of the gold medal she deserves. Shame on the IOC.