Blood Tests

“We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. We can make him better than he was before”.

It’s been some 35 years since the much loved Six Million Dollar Man hit our screens, a series that enacted a day where medical science pioneered cyborg technology which not only picked up the pieces of a broken astronaut, but made him ‘better, stronger, faster’ than before.

One generation down the line, are we any closer to the fantasy?  The competitive urge of athletes certainly provides plenty of willing guinea pigs.  Following the elite athletes as Formula 1 cars analogy, it must be debated whether pushing the boundaries of science and technology will really benefit the wider community, or if it’s a futile waste of resources for the endeavours of a privileged few, that is not only prejudicial to the interests of fair competition and promoting sport’s values, but to the athletes’ own well-being.

Recently the World Anti Doping Agency banned injecting athletes’ own blood into muscle tissue (as of 1st January 2010), yet tendons and surrounding tissue are not included in the directive.  The policy, quickly embraced by the AFL (not as yet by the NRL), is virtually impossible to enforce.  This is not to say the intentions aren’t meritorious.  Footballers already face decades of post career living prone to arthritis and other debilitating legacies of their profession.  Any ethical practitioner will contend that any medical procedure involves risk.  From a duty of care perspective, unnecessary, unproven or possibly hazardous treatments should be frowned upon, especially when there are plenty on hospital waiting lists with far more pressing concerns.

Misuse of human growth hormone has already had its fair whack of bad publicity.  For some time WADA has opposed athletes injecting themselves with blood for improved performance (via increasing oxygen-carrying ability).  Whether the growth in other controversial treatments benefits recovery and/or performance isn’t necessarily easy to decipher.  As with some drugs, legitimate usage can also serve to boost results.

Amid the dilemmas facing administrators down to athletes, not to mention a medical fraternity wary of encouraging rogues and malpractice suits, the potential for remarkable outcomes beyond sport shouldn’t be dismissed.  Even assessing each practice on a pragmatic, case-by-case basis, wading through the legal, ethical and medical ramifications is a tough task.  Whether one considers the experts or popular opinion on these grounds, consistency and a compelling mandate for any decision will be rare.

Sport has been on an exciting yet dangerous track for a while now.  Whereas once we felt that unnatural performance enhancements were clearly defined, if not judiciously regulated, for the select and desperate few there are new possibilities that although ‘natural’ in a sense, are not standard medical practice or readily available.

Matt Bowen from the North Queensland Cowboys has had cartilage removed, re-grown externally and reinserted into his knee.  The Sydney Roosters have taken sugar injections, perhaps on the back of Stoke City’s Kevin Beattie who took just two weeks to recover from a six week medial ligament injury. Meanwhile, Manly players have injected themselves with calves blood extract whilst Max Rooke (Geelong) found the answer to a severe hamstring injury in the form of a little understood injection of hylart, a mixture extracted from the fleshy crest on cockerals.  PRP (platelet-rich plasma) therapy to fast-track healing has also found favour with the likes of cricketer Shaun Tait, the Eels’ Daniel Mortimer and Pittsburg’s Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu who used it in the lead-up to the Steelers’ Superbowl win. Without it, Norm Smith Medalist Paul Chapman would not have taken the field and carried the Cats to glory over the unlucky Saints in 2009.

World records and premierships are great, but at what point do they lose their relevance or meaning and when should we be making wider podiums for the scientists and doctors to share the accolades?   What do we truly value in a sporting performance?  Is it dedication and years of hard work, is it marveling at what the more gifted among us can achieve or do we merely want to see the best possible performance no matter what the cost, be it monetary or moral, using whatever techniques, procedures or substances available?

Apart from the fraught task in determining right from wrong, that it’s fast becoming impossible to detect the uptake of the latest trends, from the merely dubious to the outright unconscionable, is becoming a tougher test for sport by the day.  The wonders of science present a minefield for sporting purists and those charged with the task of preserving what’s left of sport’s sanctity at the higher levels.  On playing fields already uneven in so many ways, are the likes of WADA, governments and sports governing bodies being hypocritical or precious to say ‘in this area, we must leave no stone unturned to achieve our perception of utopian fairness’.

It’s a shame the fundamental ideals of training, recuperation and diet, as the means by which an athlete prepares to achieve peak performance, are no longer enough.  Realistically, history says the march of progress will one day see as standard practice the manipulating of physiology with blood or other infusions, and stronger muscles, joints and tendons via stem cell inspired tissue engineering, gene therapy and bionics.  After all, it’s not as if the courted hoards are too perturbed now by what methods actors and models achieve their age-defying veneers.

Nonetheless, sport is more than a superficial beauty pageant, and until such time as such advances are proven safe and reasonably available to all, a laissez faire approach will see precious few winners at any level.  And kids who aspire to emulate their sporting heroes shouldn’t bear pressure to emulate circus freaks, or Steve Austin for that matter…even for six million dollars.

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