Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Clear Night 10° Clear

Science brings sport to a crossroad

Arthur Caplan Special to Newsday

People who don’t tell the truth are very good at lying to your face. Anyone who has watched the truth-shaving of such well-known confabulators as Ken Lay, Bill Clinton, Bernard Ebbers and Charles Keating knows what I mean.

Baltimore Orioles slugger Rafael Palmeiro apparently has joined the ranks of those who will be remembered as being good at delivering the big lie.

Raffy, as those “in the know” in the world of sports refer to him, has tested positive for steroid use just five months after sitting in front of a congressional committee and denying unequivocally that he was a “juicer.”

This rapid fall from grace of a 3,000-hit and 500-home-run candidate for the Hall of Fame has left sportswriters fuming. He seemed to be a guy you could trust. But, as anyone who has to deal with addicts knows, truth evaporates when it comes to their drug of choice.

Now the airwaves and blogs are bursting with debates about whether Palmeiro has succeeded in lying his way right out of Cooperstown. There is, however, a much bigger and more fundamental ethical question raised by the Palmeiro implosion and the steroid scandal that continues to haunt major league baseball.

It is easy to condemn steroid use. The drugs, while effective, are dangerous. But what if they were not? How are professional and amateur sports going to deal with the impending explosion in performance-enhancing drugs and bioengineering tricks that can boost performance with little or no risk for the user?

For example, at my school, the University of Pennsylvania, physiologist Lee Sweeney is trying to find ways to tweak genes to make muscles grow bigger and more dense. This research holds out real hope for those with muscular dystrophy and other debilitating muscle diseases.

But the gene transfer technology he is working on also will allow normal muscles to be made bigger and stronger. Figuring out who may or may not have engaged in “gene-doping” will prove next to impossible. And it is likely that there will be little risk associated with genetically altering muscle cells.

Similarly, scientists around the world are busy making pills that enhance our performance a bit by letting us sleep better, fight fatigue, slow the loss of memory, speed up learning, recover more quickly from hard exertion and calm anxieties. Some of us already are benefiting from drugs like these when we use Ambien, Provigil, Ritalin, Prozac or Effexor.

So what are we going to say when the archer, the chess master, the competitive marksman, the NASCAR driver or the women’s professional golfer says “if I take these same drugs I just might get enough of an edge to move ahead of my competition”?

Throughout the 1990s, when home runs were flying out of baseball stadiums, launched by players who obviously were using steroids, when professional football linemen got huge, when track and field records continued to fall, not much in the way of protest was heard. Americans are in love with those who take risks to break a record, or one another’s bones, in the name of sport.

Nor do Americans gripe when we show up at the Olympics with our athletes who have the best training, superb diets, and top-flight equipment and drub athletes from poor nations, some of whom seem to have shown up just to get a decent meal. We are used to employing science to our advantage when it comes to sports, so why should we draw the line at genetic engineering or new miracle pills?

There is nothing about the reaction to Palmeiro’s downfall that indicates we are ready to deal with the fundamental ethical question raised by his use of steroids – how can we draw the line when it comes to enhancement?

Is the point of sport to see what human beings can do without aid of any sort in fair competition? If so, we may need to close the training facilities and cut back on what dietitians and trainers are allowed to do.

But if the point of sports is to test the limits of human performance, then we had better get ready to add genetic engineers and a bevy of pharmacologists to the hordes of specialists now working with elite athletes from elementary school to the pros.

There is no right answer to what the point of sport is. But Palmeiro has made it a question no one who cares about sports can avoid.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.