Proposed ‘Enhanced Games’ — Is the risk worth our entertainment?

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and Palantir has revealed that he is investing in “the modern reinvention of the Olympic Games.”
Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and Palantir has revealed that he is investing in “the modern reinvention of the Olympic Games.” | Rebecca Blackwell, Associated Press

Peter Thiel, the billionaire founder of PayPal, has revealed that he is investing in “the modern reinvention of the Olympic Games.” I was hoping this meant he was planning to eliminate the picnic sports that have glommed onto the Games, or at least fire NBC as the Olympic broadcasting platform (Snoog Dogg is joining the coverage in Paris, hooray!!).

But no such luck.

Thiel and other venture capitalists hope to “reinvent” the Olympic Games as a drugged Olympic Games, one that allows athletes to use whatever performance-enhancing method or pharmaceuticals they choose to run faster and jump and throw farther.

There will be no drug testing. The project’s website bills itself as the Enhanced Games and it will allow athletes to swallow, inject, rub on, roll in and bathe in anything that will enhance performance. Presumably, that would include anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, EPO, and blood doping, which have been banned by sport.

It will be an anything-goes Olympics that will double as a lab for boosting athletic performance beyond the “perceived limit” of what is possible. There is no word on when these Games might take place.

Meanwhile, it is being described as the “Olympics of the future” and will “embrace the inclusion of science in sports.” The website states, “The Enhanced Movement believes in the medical and scientific process of elevating humanity to its full potential ...” Forbes reported that the so-called enhanced Games will be “unencumbered by anachronistic legacy systems” that are “anti-science” and stigmatize drug-using athletes.

Those “anachronistic,” “anti-science” systems are also anti-premature death, anti-violent mood swings, anti-shrunken testicles, anti-acne, anti-ED, anti-prostate problems, anti-breast development (in men), anti-baldness and anti a lot of other bad things, but Thiel left that part out for some reason. Let’s not quibble.

Oh, and there’s this little detail to work out: human growth hormone and anabolic steroids are illegal without a valid prescription. Will DEA agents be waiting at the finish of the 100-meter dash?

Steroids and human growth hormones are banned and controlled because they can and do create health hazards (see above), to say the least. They have been blamed for an epidemic of early deaths among professional wrestlers. They have been blamed for the serious health problems of former NFL players Steve Courson and Lyle Alzado (dead at 43). Thiel’s experiment is not completely ignoring health concerns. The athletes will be screened by doctors to assess risks, but at that point, the damage might already be done, and then there’s this old concern: It certainly will encourage youth to take the drug shortcut to success.

This is not the first time someone has suggested that the ban on drugs in sport should be lifted. This subject is raised periodically at least partly out of resignation — drug cheats are so difficult to catch, why not give up the fight?

Sprinter Marion Jones, the disgraced Olympic champion, said she took banned performance-enhancing drugs and passed more than 160 separate drug tests, including five different drug tests at the 2000 Olympics. Lance Armstrong reportedly passed about 275 drug tests. Austrian cyclist Bernhard Kohl says he took 200 drug tests in his career and had drugs in his system for half of them; he passed every test except one.

“Riders think they can get away with doping because most of the time they do,” he said.

Former cyclist Tyler Hamilton noted that drug testers didn’t have a chance when he rode with Armstrong’s team — “They’ve got their doctors, and we’ve got ours, and ours are better — better paid, for sure.” Hamilton described a substance that could be placed under the fingernails to escape detection — when providing a urine sample to a tester, the substance could be mixed with the urine and mask the drug.

As I wrote in a 2012 column, scientists required years and millions of dollars to create a test for EPO, but, according to Hamilton, “It took (his team’s doctor) about five minutes to figure out how to evade it.”

So now Thiel and his investor friends want to throw in the towel and go all-in on use of performance-enhancing drugs. My take: What’s the difference? Sports are already rife with drugs and anyone who believes otherwise is naive. The Enhanced Games website states, “When 44% of athletes already use performance enhancements, it is time to safely celebrate science.”

Time will tell how “safely” they pull it off.

A year ago, USA Today’s Brent Schrotenboer reported that 258 NFL players had been suspended for performance-enhancing drug use the previous 22 years (probably a mere fraction of the users), and the article posed a couple of rhetorical questions about drugs in the league: Do (fans) even care? Or does it actually make the NFL product more appealing?

“I’ve argued for years (that) drugs add to the entertainment, because what you pay big money to see is bigger-than-life people doing bigger-than-life stuff,” Charles Yesalis, a performance-enhancing drug expert, told the newspaper. “And if you aren’t, then watch a high school football game instead.”

The stated purpose of the Enhanced Games is to push the limits of human performance, but Yesalis struck at the heart of the matter: It’s for our entertainment, risks be damned.