With the Summer Olympics in London approaching, most of the world will soon be captivated by the primitive spectacle of sport. National teams will compete for the irrational glorification of the nation state they represent, whatever their parentage, whether they were born in that country or elsewhere. The well-resourced nations will take most of the honours and bask in the belief that this somehow makes them superior as a people.

Organised international sport has transformed itself into a grotesque boondoggle of a prestige project in league with corrupt officials and puffed-up politicians for the benefit of a peripatetic business elite – helping to bankrupt Greece, clearing out the poor to build stadiums in Beijing, placing surface-to-air missiles on the rooftops of Londoners’ homes; not to mention the 16.5-billion South Africa spent on redundant stadiums for the FIFA World Cup.

Yet the modern equivalent of the Greek games is in some ways oddly archaic. Sport has for some time now been fighting a losing battle to maintain its old fashioned values – its quaint ideas about fairness and suspect notions of purity, its antediluvian categories – against a postmodern, trans-human world. Think of the arguments around “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius’s prosthetic limbs when he attempted to qualify for the Olympics or the controversy immersing swimmer Michael Phelps in his “shark skin” wetsuit as he cleaned up no less than eight gold medals at the Beijing games.

Mechanical augmentations aside, performance enhancing drugs and genetic doping are changing the game.

Sport for dopes
And why not? Academics and scientists on the conference circuit, as well as Oxford professors, are popping psychotropic drugs such as modafinil. So are school kids. It is claimed that the film Limitless is based on an actual drug under development.

Go to any gym or gay club and you’ll see dysmorphic men pumped up with ergogenic protein supplements, anti-catabolic hormones and anabolic steroids. Last year, the SA Institute for Drug-Free Sport found drugging in professional rugby, soccer, cricket, wrestling, rowing, cycling, running, and even netball. Apparently, doping in SA sport is up 19% this year. Even High School athletes are participating.

Remember the furore when kids first started to use calculators at school? Soon our smart phones will become seamless extension of our brains. It seems inevitable that doping in sport will eventually find acceptance. One simple reason is that in the future long before an individual decides to become an Olympic athlete they will probably have undergone some gene therapy already. It’s a brave new world.

The alternative is an increasingly invasive, draconian, onerous, and often unethical testing regime.

Aren’t all athletes on performance-enhancing organic chemicals, otherwise called special diets and nutritional boosters anyway? Cyclists peddling uphill sip synthetic Energade, not water alone; we don’t ban athletes from eating genetically modified foods. Sportsmen were once stripped of their medals for loading up on caffeine.

The rationale or philosophical basis underlying the whole testing enterprise that excludes doping seems flawed. It is founded not on rational argument, but on a cultural notion – “the spirit of sportsmanship”.

Fact is big money killed the “spirit” long ago. Witness the bloated event corporations and their corrupt officials taking bribes, fixing outcomes, and selling tickets on the black market. And only the most naïve still see sporting heroes (Tiger Woods, Hansie Cronje, OJ Simpson, Mike Tyson et al) as wholesome moral exemplars. Nor is it true, as most commentators seem to assume, that doping is “clearly contrary” to the competitive spirit of sport.

This is not to excuse doping. Athletes know the rules and if they break them they are by definition cheating.

Many drugs that are beneficial for athletes, such as those helping to protect their bodies, repair injuries and recuperate are also being excluded by the doping testers to the detriment of sportsmen and women. According to some research results, erythropoietin (EPO), ubiquitously used by sportsmen for 10 years before a test was developed to screen it out (until “blood doping” got around that hurdle), could help boxers avoid permanent brain damage.

Regulatory bodies admit the war on doping looks increasingly formidable. Olympic roll medals stripped from athletes for drugs now number 13 bronze, 12 silver, and 25 gold. The more sophisticated dopers, those leading in the laboratory, are getting away with it. And it is bound to get murkier, with underground and clinically untested drugs being used. Giving “equal access” to doping might be fairer than the current dispensation.

Of course there are harmful side effects to doping, but it makes no sense for these to be monitored by a nanny sport state, at least not in its present guise. The risks and ethical issues ought to be between the athlete and the coach, and the drugs will be subject to the substance regulations of their country. No doubt, a new body of civil and contractual law will develop around consent, exploitation and experimentation on young impressionable athletes.

Perhaps one day it won’t be Germany versus the USA, but the Sanofi-Aventis team against the GlaxoSmithKline guinea-pig outfit, showcasing the competitive advantages of their drugs, just as Formula One pits Ferrari against Red Bull. The athlete will become the car. Sportsmen can be put to good use as voluntary test-crash dummies for the progress of science.

The Byzantine business of institutionalised testing run by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has its own momentum. The growing labyrinth of rules and regulations is a clear sign of how desperate the situation is to preserve the crumbing edifice of upstanding sportsmanship.

Meanwhile, numerous wild genes and genetic mutations have been sequenced and identified as giving competitive advantage. Cyclist Lance Armstrong’s body, the most tested in the world, produces 50% less lactic acid in his muscles than the average person. Finnish skier Eero Mäntyranta has a genetic mutation that increases the oxygen carrying capacity of his red blood cells by up to 50%. Some cyclists with similar genetic variations have been unjustly accused of doping. Why shouldn’t an athlete without the gene be allowed to dope up to the same capacity? Or undergo RNA interference to give him the same genetic advantage?

Like all rules they can be themselves flawed, unjust and even cruel in application. Miscarriages are common. Allegations against Comrades Marathon winner Ludwick Mamabolo are being viewed as racist by his family. He says he hasn’t changed the supplements he always used, and no one questioned him when he didn’t win.

Most disturbing are the recent proposals and rules of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in consultation with the International Olympic Committee surrounding gender determination, as if the appalling treatment of 800-metre runner Caster Semenya in 2009 and the bungled response of Athletics SA wasn’t enough to put paid to the whole concept of gender testing. She was described as a “freak” and subjected to invasive and humiliating scrutiny.

Under the new guidelines any athlete can anonymously lay suspicions against a competitor alleging “hyperandrogenism”, even though high testosterone is sometimes found in more “feminine” bodies. The correlation between testosterone and competitive ability is capricious. Butch girls beware. Katrina Karkazis, author of Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience and Rebecca Jordan Young, author of Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences, writing in the New York Times believe they can roundly debunk the testosterone myth. They argue that testosterone-based determination is founded on nothing better than folklore. Even if they are incorrect, and it seems they are not, testosterone should be discounted for the arguments outlined here earlier. One’s legal sex should be the only determinant.

The practice of gender testing by the sporting authorities has extremely nasty echoes of the pseudoscience of racial theory. Race was debunked. Simplistic notions of gender ought to have been debunked long ago too (see Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences). Semenya was targeted because she didn’t look “feminine” to the sporting authorities and her competitors. Those who fall foul of the new gender rules may have to go onto potentially harmful drug “therapies” to bring them in line with these arbitrary guidelines. Horrifyingly, some female athletes have already undergone gonadectomies.

Stephanie Findlay writing in the Toronto Star states that Semenya is now wearing jewellery and looking decidedly more “feminine”. Her times are down too. She is training for London and apparently undergoing confidential treatment.

We are a long way off from the idealised days of the Olympics. Professional sport today embodies the society we have created – venal, hubristic, cut-throat, high-stakes. Genetic modification is advancing rapidly. The Olympics will go bionic. It will be a great spectacle. Those of us, who as kids sat mesmerised by Lee Majors in the 1970s’ Six Million Dollar Man (broadcast in Afrikaans on SABC as Die Man van Staal) or by the X-Men today, look forward to mutants slogging it out on the field. Those who want their sport natural and wholesome should consider starting a “Green Olympic Games” with principled athletes who enjoy their sport as the best expression of their natural limitations. My money is on the cyborgs. It might be the only spectacle left that can fill those stadiums.

Follow Brent on Twitter.


  • Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of GroundUp.org.za and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary Coloured (Human & Rouseau, 2007) and Reports Before Daybreak (Umuzi-Random House, 2011). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003. Follow him on Twitter or visit www.meersman.co.za


Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of GroundUp.org.za and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary...

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