Future Jock

Science is sprinting toward the super-enhanced athlete. Say hello to tomorrow's inhuman being.

   
 
 

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.


 
   
HEY, GREAT GENES!

Within a decade, most of today's synthetic performance-enhancing drugs—from anabolic steroids to erythropoietin (EPO)—may be all but abandoned in favor of a far more effective (and all but undetectable) strategy: gene doping.

"By 2010, drug testing will likely be a moot point," says Yesalis. "Viruses and bacteria—the same gene delivery systems we're using now in medicine—will be used to send genetic messages to an athlete's cells. You want larger deltoid muscles? You want quicker reaction time, or more red blood cells? You'll just turn on your insulin production, your natural amphetamine production, and your EPO production. The sky's the limit."

University of Chicago researchers have already enhanced the EPO-producing gene in mice and monkeys. Chiron, a California biotech firm, obtained similar results with baboons. Given the breakneck pace of genetic research, clinical trials of EPO therapy in humans could begin as early as 2003. If they're successful, a single injection of modified genes could radically increase endurance by boosting an athlete's red blood cell count by as much as 40 percent—for an entire season.

The EPO gene is just the tip of the iceberg. In 1998, scientists at the University College London Center for Cardiovascular Research discovered the so-called "jock gene," which regulates an enzyme that controls electrolytes and blood vessel size; a form of the gene is present in many mountaineers and endurance athletes. But truly top-flight competitors like, say, Shaquille O'Neal possess a blend of synergic qualities: in Shaq's case, dizzying height, strong knees, and exceptional hand-eye coordination. Such prodigies are born, not made, claims Yesalis. "The media like to pretend these athletes succeed by pure hard work. But I've coached high school kids who worked as hard, or harder, than many elite athletes. The truth is, they're genetically set to do that sport."

The Human Genome Project recently succeeded (years ahead of projections) in producing a nearly complete map of our genetic makeup. But reports that this milestone will be used only to treat disease are grossly naive, many sports physiologists believe. The time may come when biotech firms pay vast sums for the rights to sports heroes' genetic codes. Gene "cocktails," fabulously expensive, will deliver the hottest traits of celebrity athletes. Lose that cancer gene and Lance Armstrong Infusion will be a breakaway bestseller—right up there with Spitz Mix and Tiger Milk. And how much would a youth with hoop dreams beg, borrow, or steal for a genetic dose of Heir Jordan?


 
   
CELL MATES

One week before the 2016 Games, the sensational Afghani gymnast suffers a bad dismount, destroying the ligaments in her left knee. The coach runs up to her, aghast. "What size are you?" he demands. "Four," she groans. A few hours later the coach enters the refrigerated vaults of the Kabul Tendon Bank. Artificial knees, elbows, and shoulders line the walls, each embraced by glistening webs of bioengineered ligaments. By the next morning, the custom-fitted replacement tissue has been installed into the gymnast's knee. Five days later—as she stands to receive her gold medal—a tiny scar is the only sign of her recent injury.

Tissue engineers trained in the newlywed fields of engineering and biology are striving for the Holy Grail of sports surgery: a mechanical soft-tissue replacement that can be attached directly to an athlete's musculoskeletal frame. "We're already making tissues that can be integrated over time," says Tony Keaveny, associate professor of bioengineering at UC Berkeley. "One problem is, the body sometimes rejects them. Another is that they don't have good mechanical properties at the outset. How do you manage it so they're functional right away?"

One solution will be to cultivate whole tissue systems using cells taken from the athlete's body. In several separate studies, rabbit knees have been injected with a mixture of cells and potency factors that grow into a cartilage-like replacement. The process, however, takes about a month, and the tissue may not be as good as the real thing. When the science is perfected, an athlete's tissue cells will be harvested in advance and grown over precise, computer-modeled replicas of his or her bones. Eventually, such components won't even have to be made from one's own cells. "We could have off-the-shelf components, genetically engineered to be compatible with your body," says Keaveny. "You'd remove them from their scaffoldings, and pop them right in."

This sci-fi scenario may be a reality within 20 years. Further afield are cybernetic implants like carbon nanotubes. When perfected, these microscopic filaments will be the strongest materials ever synthesized. Laced through an athlete's muscles, such fibers could allow athletes to raise the bar in many sports. And here's an even wilder possibility: Take that nanotube-reinforced arm and program the muscle cells with the genetic trigger of a common flea's jumping legs. Shot put, anyone?


   
   
THE ULTIMATE HOUSE CALL

Today, an athlete visits a surgeon, seeking medical attention for a blown ligament. Tomorrow, an expert "surgeon" will literally circulate through an athlete's bloodstream—affecting repairs whenever and wherever necessary.

In the 1992 book Nanosystems, futurist K. Eric Drexler popularized the concept of nanotechnology: microscopic machines (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter) that will someday perform tasks now relegated to entire factories, laboratories, or hospitals. The ultimate expression of this science will be "nanomedics"—devices that circulate in our bloodstreams, monitoring our health and destroying diseases before they can flourish. "Trends in miniaturization point to remarkable results around 2015," Drexler predicts. "Device sizes will shrink to molecular dimensions; switching energies will diminish to the scale of molecular vibrations."

Nanotechnology may currently be 99.9 percent fantasy, but technicians have already built and operated motors a fraction of the width of a human hair. In 1998, researchers at Cornell engineered a protein capable of using ATP—the body's metabolic "power supply"—to drive a microscopic rotor. In the future, these primitive victories will give way to more sophisticated nanomachines, some fitted out with molecule-size computers.

The athletic application for such devices would be vast. Nanoscavengers could race beneath an impacted patella, clearing away shredded cartilage and building a new layer between track heats. Nanofilaments might circulate to strained muscle groups, forming chains and pulleys of super-strong protein. One Cornell scientist predicts live-in nanopharmacies that will manufacture drugs from chemicals in the body's own cells, feeding them into the bloodstream as needed. "We're no longer restricted to what nature builds," says Ari Requicha, a University of Southern California computer scientist and nanotechnologist. "And that has incredible implications."


   
   
HOLD THAT THOUGHT

Bioengineeering and genetics may redefine the Olympian's body, but physical conditioning is just part of the game. Every world-class athlete, from Andre Agassi to Marion Jones, abides in what's often called a "winner's mindset." Words can't define this psyched-up state—but brainwaves possibly can.

The human brain generates a broad range of electrical signals, depending on its activity. Washing dishes, for example, generates a lower wavelength than leaping off a 90-meter Olympic ski jump. When Venus Williams serves an ace, her brain is running at a specific—and very desirable—frequency. If she remains in that state, her game stays strong. "Of all the people competing in an Olympic event," confirms Tim Conrad, "30 or 40 are physically prepared to win. The ones who stay together mentally will win medals."

Years of training can prepare your muscles and reflexes for the high jump, but unless you're in "the zone"—where mental focus and alertness are flowing in perfect balance—you're going to eat the bar. To help athletes control this state, technicians in Colorado Springs are using Peak Achievement Trainers (PATs). These laboratory biofeedback devices, attached to the scalp with electrodes, allow athletes to monitor—and ostensibly regulate—their levels of mental arousal. At present, the devices are more hype than help. "If this were a silver bullet," notes Conrad, "the companies making them would be extremely wealthy."

Today, the unwieldy size of brainwave sensors and the inability of computer processors to track an athlete's motion in real time prevent such biofeedback trainers from being practical. But experts like Conrad foresee the day when athletes will rely on next-generation "Personal Zone Monitors." No larger than a deck of cards, such PZMs—worn like a heart monitor—could precisely measure a gymnast's mindset through an entire routine. The unit would then help maintain this level by providing subtle signals to hold the mind on track.

Inevitably, virtual reality trainers—something like Star Trek's "holodeck"—will also play a role in mental conditioning. The first generation of such trainers, albeit relatively primitive, are already in use. Mont Hubbard of UC Davis has built an Olympic bobsled simulator, programmed with the world's major runs. And the USOC techs have developed a table-tennis robot capable of duplicating any kind of spin or trajectory. "It'll beat the stuffing out of you," Conrad promises.

Sure, but only until we've built a better human.  

Jeff Greenwald is the author of The Size of the World and Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth.



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