Beyond Beyond: The Next Unnatural Step

8/2008

by Lee Gruenfeld

After watching the Tour de France and the Olympics, it finally dawned on me what the real challenge in international sports competition is: Staying one step ahead of the drug testers.

Doing chemicals to improve performance isn't actually illegal. After all, athletes take a lot of substances to improve performance, like carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Some of it is available in food, and if you don't happen to like some of those dishes, or if you'd have to eat like a Sumo wrestler to get enough of the essential ingredient, you just hop on down to the local GNC and buy it in pill form. If you ever saw the medicine cabinet or refrigerator of a serious athlete, you'd swear you just stumbled onto the loading dock of a Rite-Aid.

So the trick isn't to avoid taking performance-enhancing substances. It's to avoid taking any that are on the list of banned stuff. But sometimes that isn't quite as easy as it sounds, because dopers and anti-dopers have gotten so sophisticated that the question isn't always whether you have something weird in your bloodstream, but how much you have of some things that aren't so weird. If you want to polish off three cups of espresso prior to a sprint tri, go right ahead, but don't overdo it or you'll get busted. Testosterone? No problem, unless you exceed a certain threshold which (and you're invited to check me on this) is arbitrary and has no scientific validity.

At least it didn't use to be a problem. Starting with the 2008 Olympics, the International Anti-Doping Agency has a new policy: They keep your blood sample for eight years, and if they develop a more sophisticated test than they have now, they can go back, re-test your sample and yank your medal long after you've hung up your Speedos. So if there's something in that Snickers bar you ate before the race that they later decide they don't like, or didn't even know existed at the time you ate it, you're plum out of luck. The only truly safe course of action is to eat and drink nothing whatsoever for the eight months prior to your event. (This is known in boxing and wrestling circles as "making weight," and one fighter in Beijing knocked himself out of the competition before it even started when he dehydrated himself right into the ER.)

Given this dire situation, how is a pro athlete expected to make a living without a Nobel laureate chemist on staff?

Well, there's at least one area of potential improvement the anti-doping fanatics haven't latched onto yet. As it turns out, there's nothing at all in the rules that prohibits a few physical alterations here and there, so for those of you who are really serious about being the best that you can be made into, check out the Final Frontier of competitive advantage: performance-enhancing surgery.

Built-in Breathe Right: Breathe Right strips are those Band-Aid-like thingies you stick on your nose to open your nostrils a little wider, which is a lot easier than doing Jim Carey facial imitations all during race day. But Breathe Rights can be a hassle, especially if you're one of those unfortunates who tends to perspire occasionally when self-propelling yourself around 140.6 miles of tropical heat and humidity. Permanently correcting the flaw in the original human design is easy, though, and takes just a wee bit of innovative rhinoplasty. Under general anesthesia, the surgeon rams a Number 16 drill up each of your nostrils and hits the gas. In just a matter of seconds you're sucking enough air to feed an F-15 engine in full afterburner. When not racing you might want to jam some cotton up there, especially if you're visiting some exotic locale with a varied insect population, but aside from that, there are few downsides.

Lung transplant: Let's say you're a 5'9" female weighing 120 pounds. No matter how hard you work, there's a limit to how much you can improve your volumetric uptake. So if you can't improve yours, why not use somebody else's? Trade in your two-liter lungs for a pair of 3.5's and the run will feel like you've got an oxygen bottle strapped to your back. The best thing about a lung transplant is that it's virtually undetectable, at least in a one-piece suit. Of course, there's the problem of finding a suitable donor: He or she not only has to have some serious max VO2, he or she also has to be dead, preferably from something that doesn't affect the organs in question, e.g., a plane crash, bullet wound or 30-odd years of toking Marlboros. You'll have to work that out for yourself.

Minor skeletal alterations: As an example, take note of the fact that the world's best swimmers have short legs but long torsos and arms. That's why you never see a full-length shot of Michael Phelps: The guy looks like ET in a fun house mirror. Research orthopedists have made great strides in lengthening limbs in the cases of some unfortunate congenital deformities, so all you have to do is talk one of those guys into slicing cylinders of bone from your femurs and inserting them into your arms, and bada bing: You're another Dara Torres. The best part is that this kind of procedure, like a skin graft or cyclists storing their own blood, is an "autologous transplantation," meaning it goes back into the same body it came out of. No rejection problems, see? Simple, and as far as I know there are no rules about moving your own parts around.

Body sculpting: I'm not talking building up your lats or getting liposuction; I'm talking real sculpting. Let's say you're a little slow in the water. You can't take steroids to build muscle because those are on the banned list (the steroids, not the muscles), but where does it say you can't have your local surgeon sew your toes together to turn your feet into a pair of flippers? Mark Spitz's feet looked like that but there's no workout that can help you get there, so…?

Bone hollowing: If you do the math, you'll discover that birds can't fly. And yet they do. Why? Because their bones are hollow and therefore very light. Not terribly strong, as anyone who's lived in New York City knows because they've seen pigeons get their wings broken when somebody nearby sneezed. But everything's a trade-off, right? Otherwise, why would Tour cyclists risk storing gallons of EPO-soaked blood in their hotel mini-bars? So if you're okay with giving up volleyball, weightlifting, hefting grandes at Starbucks and putting on your own pants, get your bones hollowed out and feel yourself "fly" (get it?) around the Ironman course. Better yet, fill the hollow spaces with helium, which is inert, harmless, undetectable and lighter-than-air. Oh, one other thing I should have mentioned: Red blood cells are manufactured in bone marrow, so this procedure means shutting down the factory. But it's an easy fix: Whenever you get a little low, just borrow a bag or two from your Tour buddies. They've got plenty and they take up too much space in the hotel mini-bar anyway.

 

Coming soon: Full-body makeovers. Not going to get into the details here; I'm talking to some sponsors about a way to make money on this and don't want to give it away. Let's just say that the kind of full-body makeover I'm talking about will make a sex change operation look like a haircut by comparison.