Biohacking Versus Doping

A Problem of Olympic Proportions

As the Olympic Games in Rio come to an end, one of the most prevalent narratives has been the controversy surrounding doping and the ban on Russian athletes. When American swimmer Lilly King publicly chastised Yulia Efimova for her two previous doping violations, many spectators in the arena and at home cheered on King’s outspokenness. If the Olympics are a grand display of what the human body can do when pushed to its limits, we can all intuitively agree that doping is the equivalent of cheating. However, it can be tough to determine where to draw the line. What counts as biohacking, or gaining an advantage based on innovative methods, and what is doping?

The World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) considers substances or practices for banned status if they meet two of the following three criteria:

  1. Have the potential to enhance or has been shown to enhance sports performance

  2. Represent an actual or potential health risk to the athlete

  3. Violate the spirit of sport

These criteria themselves highlight the fundamental difficulty in defining what is and isn't acceptable in improving performance. They're vague, and allow for a significant degree of subjectivity and room for interpretation. In order to examine where the lines are drawn, then, we must expand the discussion to both chemical and non-chemical means of performance enhancement.

Where's the line?

"Violating the spirit of sport" is an intentionally vague blanket statement. In cases like the ban on polyurethane full body suits in swimming, it seems easier to identify. The suits were banned because they allowed objectively inferior performances to set new world records and because the suits were prohibitively expensive for most athletes. However, other medical and technological advances are routinely lauded: Tommy John surgery for baseball pitchers and the prosthetic legs that (somewhat controversially) allowed Oscar Pistorius to run at the 2012 Olympics. It can be argued that both of these examples help to level the playing field instead of conferring an advantage, but that isn't the key.

Given that the entire focus of both biohacking and competing at sports is to improve performance, it is reasonable to focus on the potential for harm as the best heuristic for identifying doping.

In the 1960s, the Finnish skier Eero Mäntyranta won seven Olympic medals, three gold. It was later discovered that he and many members of his family had a rare genetic mutation in the erythropoetin receptor, causing huge increases in red blood cell count, hemoglobin levels, and therefore oxygenation capacity. In other words, Mäntyranta benefited from what Lance Armstrong and numerous other athletes achieved through EPO injections, commonly known as "blood doping." However, the genetic mutation is a benign condition. Use of synthetic EPO can lead to hypertension, heart attacks, stroke, liver and pancreatic damage, and increased risk of certain cancers.

The definition of harm can even extend to insufficient proof otherwise. In January of this year, the drug meldonium was put on WADA's banned list, sparking a spate of failed doping tests. One of the most prominent athletes implicated was Russia's Maria Sharapova, who claimed to have been prescribed meldonium for an irregular EKG and prediabetes. The drug is typically used for patients with cardiac blood flow problems. Negative side effects of meldonium haven't been well established, but the drug is only available in parts of Eastern Europe precisely because no rigorous clinical trials that meet the FDA's standards have been conducted. WADA seems to have banned it because it has clear performance enhancing potential without adequate proof of safety.

Even when safety is taken as the main standard,there may be bias against pharmacological treatments. Numerous athletes, particularly Michael Phelps and other members of USA Swimming, appeared at the Rio Games with large bruises and welts caused by cupping therapy. Cupping is a Chinese alternative medical procedure in which suction is created on patches of skin to ostensibly improve circulation and speed muscle recovery. Peer-reviewed science has not established a firm stance on cupping - there is evidence it may be helpful in musculoskeletal recovery but very little evidence for its use in more traditional medical settings. No significant systemic harm has been identified, but inexpert application of the cups can cause burns or infections. It may also be wise for children, the elderly, and pregnant women to avoid the procedure.

Many of the same concerns exist in the similarly murky area of safe and desirable cognitive enhancement as opposed to drugs or "academic doping." The questionable use of Adderall for improved academic performance in healthy individuals is well-recognized. Increasingly, creatives and others who value thinking outside the box are experimenting with microdosing of LSD as a nootropic. These topics will be explored in future entries.

In sum, the Olympics and other high level sporting events capture our collective attention and admiration because of a certain je ne sais quois. As a society, we love stories of underdogs overcoming insurmountable odds. Something within us is thrilled at witnessing what the human body can do at its absolute peak, when athletes go faster, jump higher, dig deeper, get stronger. Medical, biological, and technical advances are all part of maintaining the spectacle and pushing the boundaries of human achievement. Manipulating athletes in a way that is considered doping somehow tarnishes the essence of that achievement. In the end, we must be careful that when we play God, we don't lose ourselves in the process.

Editorial Opinion

Although certain cases (anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, EPO) are easily identified as unacceptable means of athletic enhancement, the waters are murky when it comes to setting hard and fast rules.
A good rule of thumb seems to be whether or not use of a substance or enhancement technique is harmful to the athlete's health in the long term. This serves to further underscore the need for rigorous scientific vetting and solid medical evidence before treatments or regiments are prescribed. Many of the same issues exist in the realm of cognitive enhancement and personal optimization, and these are drawing more attention than ever. That's why HVMN uses only FDA generally recognized as safe (GRAS) components in its products, and believes in backing recommendations with the most current scientific evidence.

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HVMN Co-founders Michael Brandt and Geoffrey Woo