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Performance-enhancement in sports with Arthur Caplan

Monday, 17 March, 2008

Following the recent (albeit technically not yet published until the 28th of March) article by Leon Kass and Eric Cohen, Arthur Caplan’s piece on performance enhancements in sport, titled ‘A Shot In the Rear‘ (perhaps because he views it as a pain in that area?), which was published last week at Science Progress. In it, he specifically looks at arguments set out by John Harris – who is pro-enhancement – and Michael Sandel – who is anti-enhancement. Caplan then ends up siding, for the most part, with Sandel.

Here is the crux of Caplan’s argument:

Sport is only sport if it is measuring human abilities, as varied as those may be. Sport also links the results achieved to training, will, and effort. Outcomes don’t define sport—the process leading to outcomes does. That is why short circuiting your way to success by pills or hormones as Jones, Bonds, and Clemens did undercuts their performance since both process and outcome are required in assessing performance. […] The definition of sport is human effort based on talent and training leading to performance.

In a sense, this is very similar to that argument of Leon Kass and Eric Cohen. But it is equally refutable, because all that these three people (four if you count Sandel) are doing is defining sport as something that can’t have enhancements (well, performance enhancements at least. I don’t know how they would view a drug that makes you enjoy training, or makes you strive harder. I’m guessing they would come up with something though). They could equally just say “sport is defined as an enhancement-free activity” and be done with it.

Effort can matter, but it doesn’t define sport. Fun can also matter, but that also doesn’t define sport. Sport is mostly, though probably not entirely, about outcomes. I would have thought that was obvious.

If sport wasn’t about outcomes, why do people make a bigger deal about breaking a world record than breaking a personal best (sometimes, the personal best may actually exceed the record, but was recorded without an official being present to corroborate it)? That’s because it is more of an achievement to be the best in the world than it is to have the most willpower, effort and determination. Effort is secondary to performance.

If sport wasn’t about outcomes, why do athletes retire when their body can’t perform as well anymore, even though their will and determination is still present? Perhaps it is because they know that performance is what the sports fans want to see, not effort.

If sport wasn’t about outcomes, why do sporting authorities accept (even in a limited manner) enhancements in equipment such as lighter bicycles, lycra bodysuit/bodyskin costumes or faster performance engines in cars, rather than force athletes to use the same outdated equipment? Perhaps it is because if the average Joe on the street can drive/ride/swim faster than the people at competing at an international level, then there is little desire to even watch the sport (unless perhaps a family member was competing or similar). And so it will also be when the typical citizen has bionic limbs that allow him to run faster than any pro sprinter and lift more than any pro-weightlifter, or when the typical citizen has genetically-enhanced reflexes allowing her to view a fencing or judo competition as if it were slow-motion dancing.

These bioethicists need to face the facts. Sport is mostly about performance, and in that view the individual athlete will become less important. I predict that the most popular sports of the future will become more like motor racing – the final achievement will be a result of the athlete’s ability to ‘drive’ his or her genetically-enhanced cyborg body to victory, in addition to the geneticists, pharmacologists and cyberneticians in the support team.

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