Some Standard Objections

The primary objection to biotechnological enhancement may not concern the natural condition of the athlete so much as the locus of control or agency for the athletic performance. If an athlete’s performance depends on bioengineering, the locus of agency may shift from athlete to engineer, reducing the athlete to a puppet or instrument with little more control over his own performance than a remote-controlled robot. Although this shift may be facilitated by technology, however, it does not require it. Intrusive coaches often achieve victory in a way that is perceived as diminishing the achievement of the athlete or team. Moreover, this concern about agency cannot explain the rejection of many “internal improvements,” from prostheses to steroids, that do not reduce an athlete’s own control of his training and performance, though they may alter how he trains or performs. The growing number of tactical decisions made by coaches and trainers, in sports ranging from basketball to boxing, represents a much greater threat to the agency of individual athletes.

The concern for realizing and preserving fully human potential thus appears to be more about authenticity than control, about improvements that alter the human body regardless of their effect on agency. No artifice compromises the body if it is sufficiently external to it. A fiberglass pole is not natural; it is only an instrument that a natural body can use with varying degrees of proficiency. In contrast, a prosthesis or steroid injection might be thought to render the body un?natural. Of course, we are all adulterated to some extent by human intervention— the content of our diet has been radically altered by agricultural biotechnology, and our bones, teeth, and organs bear the imprint, and often the residues of medical intervention. One obvious concern is that an athlete with extensive germline or even somatic genetic modifications would no longer be human (and therefore not the same individual, on some views of personal identity). Clearly, a transhuman or posthuman champion would not be “an outstanding instance of what man might do and be” (Weiss, 1969, p. 17). But although genetic engineering raises challenges for the definition of “species” and the boundaries between species, the kind of genetic enhancements contemplated for athletes would be unlikely to place them outside any plausible species boundaries.

Nor will a gradualist objection to pharmacological and genetic enhancement work here—the claim that biotechnology is objectionable simply because it would further denature athletes and athletic performance. We do not think that the contemporary athletes who benefit from the best scientific nutrition and training are less natural, in any sense that we care about, than the hot-dog snarfing, beer- swilling athletes of yore, just more fortunate and advantaged. At least here, there seems to be no slippery slope to descend. While some writers on the idea of nature suggest that the human impact on the landscape became “unnatural” with the advent of the industrial revolution (see Soper, 1995), we do not seem to have an analogous sense about the impact of training technology on athletes’ bodies, a sense of when a difference in degree becomes a difference in kind. If there is a plausible concern about the metamorphosis of the human body into an artifice, it is not raised by steroids but by prosthetics. There may well be compelling reasons for the International Olympic Committee’s decision to admit Oscar Pistorius to Olympic competition. But if a runner can compete with one prosthetic limb, then why not with two, or four? (See Wollbring, 2008; Camporesi, 2008.) A gold medal won with four prosthetic limbs might celebrate human excellence, but it arguably would not celebrate the excellence of the human body. The ingestion of steroids, however, does not make the athlete’s body any less human than the ingestion of other substances.

There may also be a concern that steroid use may threaten the natural hierarchy that sports celebrate (Juengst, 2009). But unlike the advent of firearms, which appeared to threaten the hierarchy of martial prowess that evolved in an age of jousting and swordplay, there is no reason to think that legal steroid use will level, or even broaden, the hierarchy of athletic performance. It may cause significant changes as to where individual athletes fall within that hierarchy, but so have many other changes in sports. Moreover, the extent to which it will do so and the identity of those it will affect are uncertain.

Finally, there is the matter of what constitutes a “natural process.” Why is the injection of steroids not a natural process when the ingestion of protein-rich food is? It cannot be a matter of intent. The intent in taking steroids may be to build bulk, but the protein supplements sold in health and sports stores are bought with the same intent. We accept as natural supplying the genome with outside nutrients—we could hardly exist if we did not. We accept as natural varying the mix of nutrients for specific purposes—bulking up for a long winter or a big mastodon hunt. But injecting refined chemicals into the bloodstream we reject. Yet it is not unnatural, or not objectionably so, for athletes to have shots for therapeutic purposes. This suggests a notion of purity in-the-alternative: if the substances an athlete takes are impure, like most medicines, then that athlete’s motives must be pure—that is, therapeutic. If the substances are pure, however, like “natural” protein supplements, then his motives need not be pure. This may be a partial explanation of our discomfort with biotechnological enhancement, but it seems hopeless as a justification.

The elusive notion of natural process also plays a central role in the controversy over low-oxygen training. Long-distance runners who grew up in high altitudes enjoy an advantage in endurance at lower altitudes, an advantage their lowland competitors have long sought to offset by sleeping at high elevations. Technology has made this advantage more widely available with the development of hypoxic tents, which can boost endurance without the considerable cost and inconvenience of training low and resting high. In a controversial decision, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) proposed banning these tents for athletic training, on the ground that they represent a passive rather than active use of technology to boost athletic performance. The decision was based on the belief that training at high altitudes required more exertion than using low-altitude tents, in which the athlete mainly sleeps (World Anti-Doping Agency, 2006). Although the distinction between active and passive seems a “natural” one for athletic training, critics argued that other accepted enhancements were no less passive. They countered WADA’s distinction with the more familiar one between environmental and bodily modification, arguing that athletes have always modified the atmosphere they lived and trained in for comfort and performance (Sale- tan, 2006; Wallace, 2006). The atmosphere of a hypoxic tent or mask may be a micro- rather than macro-environment, but that struck critics as an irrelevant difference.

WADA and its critics rely on different notions of natural conditioning.1 The disagreement in this case is not over where the line falls between acceptable and unacceptable conditioning but over what the relevant dimension is: active-passive or external-internal. This suggests that our intuitions about what is natural in the cultivation and enhancement of athletic ability are not just vague but conflicting, providing an unstable basis for any analysis of what qualifies as “natural” in sports.

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