THE ATHLETIC WORLD is poised on the brink of revolution. Advances in a host of scientific fields—from genetics to pharmaceuticals—have jolted the public imagination, conjuring visions of perfect, disease-free bodies. Within a few years, these discoveries are likely to turn science fiction into science fact as future Olympians confront dangerous choices—and the opportunity to become something more, and less, than human.
The idea of an Olympics dominated by bio-enhanced competitors is sure to raise some ire. "Anything you didn't get from God is illegal," asserts Tim Conrad, a principal engineer in the Sport Science division of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. "We're not trying to see who has the best engineers."
Conrad's purist position is a noble one. But it will soon fall under siege as enhancement methods become more and more sophisticated. If the past is any guide (see Ben Johnson et al.), the pressure for amateur athletes to reach ever-higher levels of performance will eventually trump the ethical issues—especially if Olympic gold is at stake. "You can't put the genie back in the bottle," says Charles Yesalis, author of Anabolic Steroids in Sport and Exercise and a professor of health and human development at Penn State University. "Money plays a huge role in modern sports—and normal people doing normal things doesn't sell."
Our present era of relatively "normal" athletics, with its diminishing returns and hair's-breadth record-breaking, may well be coming to a close. Athletic milestones shaved with a razor could soon fall to the chainsaw. A 12-foot high jump, or three-minute mile? Don't laugh; it may be within our genetically altered, prosthetically boosted grasp all too soon.