OUT: Old, Slow Olympics // IN: Olympics... on Drugs??
The Enhanced Games made a splash this week by announcing big investors and bigger ideas. Can a track meet that allows unlimited performance-enhancing drugs succeed?
Welcome to Running Sucks, a newsletter where I speak to interesting people who are expanding running culture. Sign up for free to receive a new story in your inbox every week. Upgrade if you enjoy it and would like to support my writing.
2024 is an Olympic year, but this week’s sports headlines have included quite a few for the Enhanced Games - a multi-sport event where athletes will not be tested for performance-enhancing drugs.
It sounds like an absurdist comedy sketch rooted in science fiction. Indeed, every time an athlete has tested positive and been stripped of their medals, I’ve joked with friends about seeing this exact track meet. What could a bunch of humans do if they train to their maximum? Their real maximum.
I spoke to President of the Enhanced Games, Aron D’Souza about what the organization is trying to do. Get in, runners. It’s time to go pearl-clutching.
Aron begins with a nebulous idea of enhancing humanity. He talks about inspiring scientists and entrepreneurs to invest their time and energy into developing new compounds that could help us live forever.
“I fundamentally believe that aging is a disease that we should be able to treat, cure, and eventually solve.”
Finding out how to live forever (healthily) appears to be Silicon Valley’s next big goal. If it’s not Bryan Johnson’s quest for eternal youth via his son’s blood plasma, it’s Enhanced Games investor Peter Thiel’s investments in the Methuselah Foundation, which is developing regenerative treatments with an aim to keep people younger and stronger.
D’Souza talks about the highfalutin fringe movements of accelerationism and humanism. He talks about defeating artificial intelligence by simply building better humans.
With millions of high-profile dollars invested, a hands-on, billionaire co-founder in Christian Angermayer (another billionaire tasking themselves with living forever), and a future-focused scientific advisory board in place, the long-term goal is biohacking but that seems to be intertwined with the goal of sports entertainment dominance.
The Value Proposition
In the short-term, they’re aiming to build an attractive live sports product, and be profitable. D’Souza talks of investors now clamoring to be a part of the project, and of the kind of high-profile media partners that he thinks will attract some of the biggest athletes.
“I'm pretty certain that the best athletes in the world are going to jump up and say, ‘I'm kind of sick of being a FedEx delivery guy, and moonlighting as a pole vaulter on the side with 25,000 Instagram followers. You know what? I'm going to join the Enhanced Games.’”
He talks of building a leaner, more financially efficient model than the Olympics, where a wasteful white elephant stadium is not built - a model that will allow them to pay athletes properly.
“Olympic bureaucrats are flying around the world in private jets, and 50% of athletes live in poverty. That's a system of exploitation. We're creating a system that's fair pay.”
Is this really a noble quest to pay athletes fairly - great, if so - or is it simply identifying the people struggling enough to become salaried lab rats in exchange for fame and glory? A real-life Squid Game - a different kind of exploitation.
D’Souza thinks everyone wants to be enhanced. He points to superhero movies being the most popular films over the past 20 years. If mutant powers are the pot of gold for the athletes, a decent wage and media support are important ingredients for success.
D’Souza talks about giving athletes the opportunity to have their own Neil Armstrong moment.
“Imagine being the first man to be openly enhanced, breaking world records there in front of 100 million people.”
Will the prospect of fame and being the first be enough for athletes raised on the pure ideals of sportsmanship?
The Ethics of Enhancements
The science. The sport. The money. The drugs. Big questions of ethics and morals run right through every facet of the Enhanced Games. It’s because they’re trying to change the status quo. They’re disrupting. They’re making me think about what is already ok and what could be ok.
Carbon-plated supershoes are accepted now. Prescription glasses? Totally fine, of course. Winning the genetic lottery worked for Michael Phelps and his plus-sized wingspan, but not for Caster Semanya and her extra testosterone. Skeletal advantages trump hormonal advantages in that particular comparison.
Where do you draw the line, then, when so many enhancements are already in play?
What about legal drugs? Nicotine? Frowned upon, but perfectly legal. Caffeine? It’s a legal stimulant, but what about in a supercharged Panera lemonade? In this under-regulated, freedom-fueled hellscape that America has built for its lower 99%, how can we let death by corporate soft drink be welcomed in a press release while simultaneously frowning upon an anabolic steroid?
Figuring out which controlled substances are deemed appropriate for each event will prove interesting. Sha’Carri Richardson missed the Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for marijuana. D’Souza agrees with the USADA and WADA that cannabis is not performance enhancing, but in her moment of grief, what if smoking that joint helped Richardson get an extra few hours of sleep? Just like steroids plump up muscles to allow people to train harder for longer, maybe that marijuana afforded some sleep to allow Richardson to run fresher and stronger.
Either way, rules are rules. The best games have a strong structure of well-thought-out rules, but they’re drawn up by committee so are arbitrary by nature. We come back to that question: where do you draw the line? Maybe it’s complex enough to get rid of the line completely?
Trust the Science?
When it’s pointed out that a games relying on science is at odds with an increasingly anti-scientific society, D’Souza extols the virtues of vaccines, but not their application.
“A vaccination is an enhancement. It makes us stronger and overcome a disease that we would not actually be able to fight. When you force people to take a medical treatment or course then that is extremely problematic.”
He talks about the problems with a government or sports federation imposing their worldview on individuals, and equates mandatory vaccination with East Germany juicing their Olympic team in the 1970s and 1980s.
It’s a reach. There is no herd immunity aspect to PEDs, but the “my body, my choice” language co-opted by the Enhanced Games doesn’t cause harm to others like an unvaccinated person can. We’re suffering a measles outbreak in the USA at this moment, after all. Great job, everyone.
In that respect, the Enhanced Games are quite harmless.
They’ve got the best drugs
D’Souza cites a study that said 44% of athletes are already doping. If that’s true, what difference can the Enhanced Games really have? Can they really move the needle sufficiently if athletes are already as enhanced as he suggests? His answer is that they will be able to use stronger, more effective drugs that are less harsh on the athletes’ internal organs.
“If Usain Bolt was taking performance enhancements at his last world record run, he was taking the wrong ones. He had to take ones with masking agents or with short metabolic half lives [to evade testing], but imagine if you didn't need to do that and the only concern was to do it safely, under clinical supervision, and I think that we can yield a much better outcome.”
Will that outcome be significantly different to what we have already? That’s the dream. Part of me giggles at the prospect of an arena filled with juiced-up jocks twitching furiously at the starting gun to try and outrun Lewis Hamilton in his Formula 1 car, but another part of me is so intrigued by the wild-eyed accomplishments that could come.
“Just wait. We're going to break the nine second 100m. Maybe not in the first year - it might take 10 years - but we're going to obliterate the world records.”
“Who's going to want to watch the old, slow Olympics? Broadcasters pay billions for the old, slow Olympics. Will an athlete want to be the fastest natural man in the world? I think they just want to be the fastest man in the world.”
For me, it’s like reality TV. It’s nothing that serious. It’s not the purity of man with the pinnacles of natural human talent pitted against one another. It’s human BattleBots (Robot Wars in the UK). It’s the result of a lot of time spent in a laboratory, and good marketing.
Do I want to watch it? Sure. Is it serving a purpose? I’m not about to take any PEDs myself, and the fountain of immortality they’re trying to find will likely be reserved for the billionaires funding the research, rather than the likes of you and me.
Will it render the Olympic Games obsolete? I would love athletes to be paid well, but I doubt that it can topple that particular institution so easily, but time will tell.
Check back in 20 years, when we’ll be the same age as we are now, if the research arm of the Enhanced Games has anything to do with it.
Ways to make running suck less covered today
I don’t think we covered any
Running Sucks Haiku of the Week
What a lot of rain
An atmospheric river!
Still got my runs in
We’ve had something of a deluge here in L.A. - the kind of storm that’s washed homes away. Luckily, I don’t live on that kind of a hill, but seeing the river that full was quite something.
WIN - Congratulations to Derica for winning this week’s $50 Janji gift card. Click here to enter. 14 entries last week.
SHARE - If you forward this article to someone it would make me very happy. During this harrowing 20-year decline in journalism, it really makes all the difference!
DISCORD - Join the Discord server if you would enjoy a community focused on reading and writing about running.
PODCAST - If you want to hear my dulcet tones, this article is available in most places podcasts are found. Here’s the Spotify link.
IG - Follow me on Instagram if you like it there. I don’t, and yet there I am, all the time.