An Australian public library has just announced (tongue in cheek) that it is about to move all works about Lance Armstrong to their fiction section.
The Armstrong scandal is, of course, a very sorry tale of an immensely talented and determined athlete who chose to forget that winning isn’t winning if you break the rules. Rules set an equal and fair (if arbitrary) baseline for competition. Taking a performance enhancing drug to create an unfair advantage is cheating.
However, rules help illustrate a much bigger story of performance enhancement. Over time rules – and the athletic performances they enable – provide an interesting measure of how our species is steadily being physically enhanced. Evolving itself.
A straight forward measure for any sport is world records. In every sport, each new generation of athletes achieves world records and betters the generation before.
This progress isn’t simply because athletes now train harder or are more talented. It’s a symptom of innate and rapid improvements in our collective physical well being. A reflection of mass human enhancement. In the past century we’ve experienced vast improvements in:
- Nutrition – the availability of nutritious and balanced diets throughout the year
- Shelter and sanitation – reducing disease and enhancing psychological well being
- Improved research and education – not simply better physical sports facilities for kids but also advances in our understanding of – and attitudes about – what makes us all physiologically and psychologically better.
- Most importantly, Healthcare – advances such as the availability of antibiotics (since 1932) and vaccines have had an immense impact on health and well being over the last four or five generations, exemplified by global life expectancy stats.
Couch potatoes aside, all of these factors have led to a fitter and generally healthier population which has had a positive knock on effect on athletic endeavours.
In 1935, Jesse Owens broke 4 world records in a single 45 minute period. He smoked 30 cigarettes a day, it was the era before antibiotics. How much could he have beaten his own world records by if he was born today, in 2013, rather than 1913?
The process is ongoing. China is lifting a billion people out of poverty in just a couple of generations. Other countries such as Indonesia and India (another couple of billion people by 2050) are slowly following. As people escape poverty the first items purchased tend to be better family nutrition and hygiene & healthcare products (followed by communications in the form of a mobile phone – increasingly likely to be internet connected).
What’s perhaps more intriguing: very recent advances in our understanding of epigenetics (the way DNA is controlled by our environment) suggest that these enhancements to our collective physical well being can be inherited by future generations.
Sporting rules will also change over time as was highlighted in last summers London Olympics. Oscar “blade runner” Pistorius, is a double amputee who runs on carbon fiber blades and has spent the past the last 6 years fighting to be allowed to run in “able bodied” races as well as the Paralympic events. This culminated in his appearance for the South African team at the 2012 Olympics.
As prosthetic limbs improve and other physical enhancements arrive, rules will continue to change for many sports to accommodate advances and ensure that they are legally and equally accessible by all competitors. These advances and rule changes may accelerate the breaking of previous sporting records.
So, of course it’s shocking and disappointing that Armstrong used performance enhancers to steal titles from his rivals. But, rogue competitors aside, the unmistakable winner in the performance enhancement story – is humanity.