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From The New Yorker: Genetic Advantages vs PEDs; Which is Fair, and Which is Not



I stumbled across this article earlier today, and it really captured my attention as an evolutionary biologist, because I know, with absolute certainty, thatr eliminating PEDs will not create anything like a "level playing field." Different individuals, and ethnic groups, are not equal when it comes to competition in sports

A caption for an illustration in the article notes that:

"Élite sports is a contest among athletes with an uneven set of genetic endowments and natural advantages."

This is true, and no one, I think, who understands human evolution and anatomy could argue otherwise. An Eskimo will not beat a Kenyan in a marathon, no matter what. But, what constitutes enhancing your own physical advantages, or harnessing the body's natural ability to adapt to stress, and what constitutes cheating? Frankly, at this point, I'm no longer clear about this.

Because of this lack of clarity on my part, I've tried to stay away from the recurring debates over PEDs, other than to argue that they should be legal, and any athlete who wants to take them should be able to. But I found this article by Malcolm Gladwell, in the New Yorker, which really helped me clarify some of the issues here. It's an article, a twin discussion really, and not a proper review looking into two booksd, entitled "The Sports Gene", by David Epstein, and Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle:

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2013/09/09/130909crat_atlarge_gladwell?currentPage=all

The most compelling paragraph of this discussion, for me anyway, is this:

"What we are watching when we watch élite sports, then, is a contest among wildly disparate groups of people, who approach the starting line with an uneven set of genetic endowments and natural advantages. There will be Donald Thomases who barely have to train, and there will be Eero Mäntyrantas, who carry around in their blood, by dumb genetic luck, the ability to finish forty seconds ahead of their competitors. Élite sports supply, as Epstein puts it, a "splendid stage for the fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity." The menagerie is what makes sports fascinating. But it has also burdened high-level competition with a contradiction. We want sports to be fair and we take elaborate measures to make sure that no one competitor has an advantage over any other. But how can a fantastic menagerie ever be a contest among equals?"

Gladwell goes on to talk about iodine and IQ, how baseball players have remarkably better eyesight than the rest of us, and the physical endowments that make high-altitude Kenyans better distance runners (note: some of this is altitude-related, but some is due to the fact that Kenyans are simply built differently.

I'm reminded of Michael Phelps, and how many times people remarked on his weird body. But he was a great swimmer.

I'll let you all read the article, but I need to make one observation. Why are we so offended by, first, the idea that some people use PEDs; and second, the idea that individual humans, and different groups of humans, are truly "different"? I wonder if this attitude is a hold-over from the Depression, or even the pre-Depression, when the idea was that you can haul yourself out of any fix, no matter how bad, if you just work hard. Sports was a prime target for people without education or resources, and it still seems like a glowing and wonderful, and perfectly accessible, goal. If you work hard enough.

Sports, in other words, seemed to preserve that illusion of the "level playing field," and maybe even more, a real shot at the top for people who had no other chance.

So, here's a last paragraph from the article

"It is a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference. Hamilton and Armstrong may simply be athletes who regard this kind of achievement as worthier than the gold medals of a man with the dumb luck to be born with a random genetic mutation."

I agree.

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