A futile fight against nature

by Andrey Borodaevskiy

In Soviet Russia, a maxim coined by the not-so-educated but very talented botanist and natural selectionist Ivan Michurin was popular and often repeated: “We may not expect any charities from nature; to take them from it is our task.”

This is quite an anthem to science indeed — even if it was sung in a dramatic historical context and put to questionable ideological use.

In my youth, I invented (or picked up somewhere) another maxim with somehow similar logic but an almost diametrically opposite meaning: “A fight against nature always ends with nature’s victory!”

What is true about nature in general should also be true with regard to human nature. Among men and newly emancipated young women, there are bold, ambitious individuals who ardently want to find out what they can achieve with their bodies and spirits. They are ready to undergo the toughest tests and to risk their own health and eventual longevity to prove something — to themselves and to the wide public. That is why sports are so popular nowadays, but also why there are so many doping scandals and cases exposing various cheating tools based on modern medicine.

In the age of globalization, sports tend to take on international — sometimes truly planetary — dimensions. Multimillion-strong audiences crave the best results and ever-new records at events. Otherwise, they lose interest — as simple as that.

However, modern civilization did not work out clear-cut and universal “rules of the game” concerning individual activities at sports events. What is tolerated in some sports is severely punished in others.

The overall trend is to secure “clean” sports, but the control procedures and results achieved vary dramatically. Also, the very concept of “clean” is treated differently in different sports. Roughly, collective sports where teams compete against each other do not seem to be controlled as thoroughly as individual sports.

Can you name many cases in which a footballer could not go out on the pitch or a hockey player was removed from the ice because of an anti-doping test? Or when the results of a basketball or water polo match were annulled on similar grounds?

In contrast, in many individual sports — like cycling, motorcycle racing, weightlifting, track and field athletics, golf, tennis and boxing — the anti-doping control is routine and often very strict indeed. Still, in some other individual sports that attract a lot of international attention — for instance, professional chess and sumo — it looks like there are no regular anti-doping regulations.

Meanwhile, in the background of rapid technological progress, there is a genuine race between inventors of ever new performance-enhancing drug concoctions, and those striving to make anti-doping control more efficient. At the moment, it looks as if the “controllers” have the upper hand, though John Fahey, president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, just asserted that it is “impossible” to win the battle against doping.

Sensationally, in 2012, the competitive cycling legend Lance Armstrong was banned for life and all his results since August 1988 were invalidated, including his seven consecutive victories in the Tour de France. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report called Armstrong a “serial cheat who led the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that the sport has ever seen.”

The man who overcame testicular cancer and then achieved truly outstanding results in one of the most popular sports was publicly disgraced. He also faces unrealistic demands to pay back millions of dollars in prize money received during his outstanding career, and now meets high-profile interviewers who expect ugly revelations and public self-accusation.

Separately, at the end of a long-running and passionate saga, another cycling idol — Alberto Contador — was sanctioned for two years because of a positive test for clenbuterol at the 2010 Tour de France, though the Spanish national federation accepted his explanation that the traces of this drug in his sample were caused by consuming contaminated meat.

If we approach the doping issue not in the context of moral correctness but as a matter of principle and of logic, we should look at some concrete points. Clenbuterol is a bronchodilator routinely taken by people with chronic breathing disorders such as asthma. If it also happens to have a “weight-loss and muscle enhancing” effect, should this easily available substance be illegal for use in sports? In particular, why should asthmatics be robbed of their right to go in for competitive cycling?

Innovations play a big role in keeping people alive, helping them successfully recuperate from diseases and feel more healthy and happy. In surgery, operations involving artificial valves and vessel-imitating plastic tubes, donor hearts and of other vital human organs are becoming an everyday affair.

If, in therapy, blood transfusions are widely applied, why is it taboo to use this well-developed technology for enhancing sports results — especially, if an athlete uses his or her own blood?

By the way, Chinese athletes of late have been steadily achieving high results in many sports, and it is hard to believe that their famous Oriental medicine has had nothing to do with it.

The “amateur” majority may enjoy their “clean” and “healthy” sports, but is it fair that the most resolute and ambitious are robbed of the opportunities to perform at their best? In my view, outstanding individuals like Armstrong and Contador should be freed from having to indulge in sophisticated clandestine activities to reach the form they crave. They should be offered venues and events in which to compete with other such individuals without fear of disclosure. In competitive cycling, there should be at least one major tour a year in which they could prove their worth.

The rules applied in the Paralympics — a major international multisports event for the disabled, which is attracting increasing attention worldwide — also make one wonder. For one, is it fair that, in such contests, artificial limbs, prosthetic devices and other high-tech mechanical gadgets be allowed while chemical and pharmaceutical performance-enhancing means are not?

Biotechnologies, including those using stem cells, and nanotechnologies promise new breakthroughs in various, often quite unexpected, fields. Pretty soon perhaps we’ll see 40-years-olds running 200 meters and 60-year-olds kicking each other in the nose. But how can and will that be achieved? Only on a high-tech basis through the legalized use of performance-enhancing drugs and substances containing active pharmaceutical ingredients.

Therefore, doesn’t it look ridiculous to persist in forbidding a handful of the most risky and resolute professionals from freely experimenting with their bodies using any available innovations offered by modern science and technology?

Shouldn’t they be allowed to go all the way in sports, as people may do in other professional occupations (or in their sexual lives, for that matter)?

Andrey Borodaevskiy (annabo36@mail.ru), an expert on world economy and international economic relations, was a professor at Seinan Gakuin University, Fukuoka, from 1994 to 2007.