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See Inside Scientific American Volume 306, Issue 6

World-Class Athletes Are Pre-Performance Enhanced

When it comes to athletic performance, it's not how you start—it's how you Finnish
Performance Enhancing Drugs, Steroids, Professional Sports, London Olympics, Tour de France,Baseball, Basketball,



Matt Collins

The London Olympic Games and the Tour de France are on the horizon in Europe. Here in North America, the baseball season is under way, with football soon to follow. All of which means that around the world, in gleaming state-of-the-art facilities and dingy state-of-the-meth-lab basements, chemists are hard at work making molecules for athletes to swallow, snort, apply and inject into one another’s butts.

Almost all sports fans decry the use of performance-enhancing drugs. It’s cheating. It gives the user attributes he or she did not rightfully earn. It just feels wrong to most fans. It feels wrong to me. But I have a question that almost inevitably leads to heated arguments—which leads me to suspect that we’re dealing with deep emotional issues as much as intellectual analysis.

My question is: Why is it not questionable for a Boston Red Sox team doctor to have surgically and temporarily stabilized Curt Schilling’s peroneus brevis tendon by suturing it into deep connective tissue before Game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees? (The jerry-rigged nature of what is now called the “Schilling tendon procedure” begat the Beantown-blessed bloody sock.)

Okay, the question is usually worded more like this: “Sure, steroids are cheating, but why was it legal for them to sew Curt Schilling’s ankle together for a few hours just so he could pitch?” If I, a Yankees fan, put the question to a Red Sox fan, I quickly add, over my shoulder, “Stop chasing me with that fireplace poker, I’m not saying it wasn’t okay, I just wanna know why it was.”

Barry Bonds, who allegedly used so many steroids that other hitters looking to beef up could just lick him, probably ruined his chances for admission to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Schilling’s bloody sock is already on display there.

Pitcher Mordecai Brown mangled his hand in a piece of farming equipment, which earned him the nickname “Three-Finger” but made his curveball better. Pitcher Antonio Alfonseca’s hereditary polydactyly gave him six fingers per hand. Do we need a five-finger rule?

Furthermore, why is “Tommy John surgery” okeydoke? When I was a boy, when a pitcher’s arm fell off, he just pitched with his other arm. Sorry, I slipped into caricature-old-man mode for a second there. Let me try again.

When I was a kid, if a pitcher suffered damage to the ulnar collateral ligament of his elbow, he either kept trying to pitch through the pain, or he retired. But in 1974 orthopedic surgeon Frank Jobe replaced pitcher Tommy John’s ligament with a tendon from John’s arm. And John pitched in the major leagues until 1989. So many pitchers have performed so well after Tommy John surgery, some young pitchers have considered having it done electively.

The usual answer I get is that surgical procedures merely allow the athlete to return to his or her previous, natural condition. They do not enhance anybody’s performance. Which seems reasonable—until I wonder whether it was natural for some athletes to break down under the stress when other athletes stay whole.

Speaking of what’s natural, let’s talk about my all-time favorite Olympic athlete, seven-time cross-country skiing medalist Eero Mäntyranta. Because Mäntyranta, who competed for Finland in the 1960s, was straight out of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

Mäntyranta has a genetic condition that can bring about fantastic increases in red blood cells, hemoglobin and oxygen-carrying capacity. Which is a pretty terrific thing for an endurance athlete to have. (Much, much better than an extra finger on each hand.)

Actually it’s blood doping, but natural. Well, it’s natural if a mutation is natural. And although most world-class athletes probably won’t have a single major Mäntyranta-like mutation, I would bet they have a constellation of uncommon, performance-enhancing genetic constructs. So if users of performance-enhancing drugs are disqualified, should holders of performance-enhancing mutations be barred, too? Stop levitating the poker, Magneto, I’m just asking.

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