The Frankenjock Debate
Tuesday, September 26, 2000
ARE THE GREAT ATHLETES trainedor are they made? And if they are made, what makes them?
The old debate was whether race-based genetic differences were a factor in athletic performance. And as if that wasn't hot enough, here comes one that's even hotter: What to do about athletes who are made better, not by natural human genetics, but by unnatural scientific design? What to do about the Frankenjocks in our future?
To watch the Sydney Olympics is once again to be reminded of the dominance of black athletes, notably, Maurice Green, Michael Johnson and Marion Jones. In the United States, African Americans have long dominated football and basketball, and now the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, and Tiger Woods are proving that blacks, given a chance, can conquer "country club" sports such as tennis and golf.
As Sports Illustrated's S.L. Price put it earlier this year: "The black domination of such high-profile sports as basketball, football and Olympic track is now so complete that its relatively unexamined state is almost embarrassing."
That situation changed with the publication of "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It" by Jon Entine, former NBC News producer. "The decisive variable is in our genes,'' Entine writes. "There is extensive and persuasive research that elite black athletes have a phenotypic advantagea distinctive skeletal system and musculature."
The danger is that some will go beyond scientific data and speculate about an inverse correlation between athletic and intellectual ability. But Entine keeps well clear of Jimmy the Greek/Al Campanis territory. As the New York Times put it earlier this year: "Mr. Entine makes a careful and reasoned case."
Hard science behind some of the differences we see todayand the path to further human differentiation in the futurewas showcased in the September issue of Scientific American. Three Danish researchers associated with the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center outlined the mechanics of muscle movement, explaining how the disproportionate presence of anaerobic "fast twitch" muscle fibers boosts athletes who depend on surges of muscle power, such as sprinters and weight lifters. Conversely, aerobic "slow twitch" muscle fibers help endurance athletes, such as marathoners and cyclists.
The authors don't touch upon race-based differences, because their point is far more radical: Bioscience could soon displace both nature and nurture as the prime determinant of athletic skill.
For years, doctors have been drugging athletes to improve their performance. But these treatments leave trails.
The Danish authors predict that in a decade or so it will be possible to develop an invisible regimen of athletic enhancement. One method might be injecting artificial myosin, a filamentary protein, into the nuclei of muscle cells, thereby stimulating the creation of additional musculature, tailored to a specific athletic event.
Since there's little doubt that some will succumb to such temptation, the genetic differences among humans are likely to be swamped by the genetically engineered differences between humans and souped- up "post-humans." What will we do then? Will we let such Frankenjocks compete and clobber us? Or will we try to screen for these master-athletes, using ever more invasive tests, combined with closer scrutiny of their lifeand laboratoryhistory?
Perhaps the eventual solution will be the creation of different tiers of competition, so that like competes only against like.
Is all this scary? Yes. Is it inevitable? Yes. And it's only the beginning.
James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday.