Introduction: The Olympics

By Michael Marshall Sport is one of the defining features of human beings. While animals frequently compete in ritualised forms of combat, they don’t do so for fun, as humans do – and nor is their competition necessarily governed by strict rules of conduct. The most famous of sporting competitions are the Olympic Games, which originally took place in ancient Greece between 776 BC and 393 AD. The first modern Games were held in 1859. The Games have come to represent the ideal of sporting excellence – the “Olympian spirit” of pure athletic competition, untrammelled by worldly considerations. But politics and money have often intervened in the modern Games’ history. More than 60 countries, led by the US, pulled out of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and many Eastern Bloc nations staged a tit-for-tat boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The 2008 Olympics, held in Beijing, have been the subject of much controversy associated with the host nation’s ascent to superpower status, and particularly its environmental and human rights records. The making of an athlete What makes a great athlete? For much of history, the best answer to that question boiled down to luck, skill and hard work. Now science is providing more refined answers, allowing coaches to use technology to spot talented athletes and uncovering the origins of natural ability. There is growing evidence that genetics plays a big role in determining sporting winners. Some top athletes seem to have enhanced metabolic abilities. Living at high altitude can also be a great advantage, which may partly explain the great success of some African and South American athletes. Indeed, some athletes are born with advantages that are essentially equivalent to those bestowed by banned substances, leading some to argue that their rivals should be allowed to take drugs to even things up. Levelling the playing field In fact, it’s becoming ever more difficult to ensure that competitions are run fairly for all comers. Modern athletes are pushing at the boundaries of human ability, even if only because more people are taking part. That means tiny changes in conditions can have significant consequences. In track races, for example, the conventional starter’s gun gives an advantage to the athletes in the inside lane, while different surfaces favour either sprinters or long-distance runners. Advantages can also result from the use of performance-enhancing technology, which has had an impact in sports ranging from pole-vaulting to cycling and beyond. Athletes have benefited from specially-tuned running shoes, and even a glove-like device that cools the internal organs. Technology integrated into the very bodies of athletes – such as amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius – raises fundamental questions about who should be allowed to compete in events like the Beijing Olympics. When competition is so fierce, even a minute advantage can make the difference between winning and losing – and thus make a massive difference to an athlete’s earnings. The resulting pressure may be part of what drives people to cheat, particularly when reinforced by aggressive coaching techniques. One relatively basic way for male athletes to cheat is to pretend to be a woman, although any advantage this might confer may not last – female performances in some sports are improving faster than those of men. Physical examinations are inevitably degrading for those whose sex is questioned – but genetic tests, supposedly less invasive, can still raise sensitive questions without providing definitive answers. It’s even harder to detect the use of banned drugs to gain an extra edge in competition. Doping was eventually banned by most sports federations in the 1960s – the International Olympic Committee banned it in 1967. Ironically, there is actually little evidence to show that these drugs work – or at least, that they are any better than placebos. Drug testing has become a hugely challenging task, with rule-makers engaged in a continual arms race against the cheats. New drugs continue to be discovered: a drug called WG1516 improves the effects of exercise in mice; and another called bupropion increases athletes’ tolerance for high temperatures. Both might end up being used to illicitly boost performance before their effects on humans are properly understood. And nowadays many athletes take nutritional supplements such as creatine, which helps them produce sudden bursts of energy. Such supplements are now routinely tested for banned substances, but it is becoming harder to draw the line between supplements and drugs. The practice of drug-testing can itself be controversial. Singling out individual athletes for testing can seem unfair, though new lab-on-a-chip methods could allow everyone to be screened. And since the research behind the tests is generally secret, it’s hard to evaluate claims that the tests are unreliable. The next big step in cheating could well be “gene doping” – athletes using gene therapy to improve their performance, perhaps by boosting their muscles’ response to exercise. It would be a whole new challenge for sports bodies, but research is underway to detect it, and so far technical hurdles seem to have prevented gene doping from making an appearance. There are, of course, acceptable ways for athletes to benefit from science. New methods are being developed to help athletes prepare for events and recover afterwards, particularly physiological research into why exercise causes fatigue. Australia’s unprecedented investment in sport science has made it one of the world’s most successful sporting nations. Lung performance is key: during training, athletes can wear a tight vest that constricts the lungs and thus gives their muscles a workout. Alternatively, they can just sleep in a high-altitude bed, or hyperventilate to train their lungs to cope with fatigue – although fatigue may be all in the mind. Athletes are also unusually prone to illness, for reasons that are unclear. Sport scientists are starting to make some progress towards solving this: for instance, a chemical called quercetin found in fruits, berries and tea has been shown to protect cyclists from chest infections. Athletes can also experience chronic tiredness caused by over-exercising. Athletic performance declines with age, though the reasons for this are often unclear. The long-term effects can be unexpected: athletes are just as prone to heart disease as everyone else, but their large hearts can disguise the symptoms. However, with careful training and preparation,
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