Ben Bova: Baseball? Steroids the tip of the iceberg

Baseball’s spring-training season is in full swing, and so are worries that some athletes might be using steroids and/or other illegal means to enhance their playing abilities.

Alas, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Steroids are merely the tip of the iceberg. As modern science progresses, athletes are going to have many more ways to enhance the strength and reflexes that nature gave them.

Let’s consider a hypothetical 20-year-old lad who’s been invited to a major league team’s spring practice for a tryout. He’s tested for steroids and no trace of the banned drugs is found.

But the major league enforcers aren’t looking for gene doping. This is something new. Our young ballplayer can take insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) or follistatin transgenes that can enhance muscle function, help body cells utilize energy more efficiently and enhance physical endurance. Nothing illegal about them. So far.

According to Science magazine, a Chinese genetics laboratory allegedly offered gene-based performance enhancers to athletes before the 2008 Olympics games in Beijing. It’s not known if any athletes took advantage of the offer, but technically there are no rules against it. Not yet.

Let’s say our hypothetical ballplayer uses gene doping to enhance his strength, his reflexes and his endurance. He makes the big-league team. Hooray.

He’s a catcher and he gets hurt in a collision at home plate. His left shinbone is broken.

Normally he’d be out for the rest of the season, but with stem-cell therapy his broken bone can be knitted together good as new in a couple of weeks. Within a month he’s back in uniform.

After a couple of years of stardom, he spends the winter offseason replacing the bones of his legs with artificial bones composed of a composite of titanium and ceramic material. Cermet bones are stronger and more durable than organic ones.

Catchers are liable to have knee problems, sooner or later. So, in time, our player has both his knees replaced with artificial ones. Now he can crouch and spring to his feet just as spryly as he did when he was a teenager. Better, even.

His throwing arm has always been good, thanks to the gene enhancements that strengthen his muscles and sharpen his reflexes. But eventually he can replace his natural arm with an artificial limb that’s stronger and faster than the arm he was born with. It is controlled by microchips that give him the ability to whip the ball to second base with inhuman speed and accuracy.

None of this is illegal. But is it proper? If one athlete can use biomedical breakthroughs to improve his abilities, the pressure will be on all the other athletes to do the same. If they don’t, they won’t survive.

Will professional athletes becomes cyborgs: cybernetic organisms, part human, part machine?

Will fans buy tickets to watch cyborg athletes compete against one another? Records will tumble every year and championships will go to the teams that can afford the best biomedical services.

There will be purists, of course, who will demand that sport contests be restricted to actual human beings, not men and women aided by gene doping, artificial limbs and other enhancements. But it will be tougher and tougher to write rules against the avalanche of new possibilities coming from the laboratories.

There is, of course, another side to all this. These performance-enhancing capabilities won’t be restricted to athletes. I could use a pair of artificial knees myself, right now. Modern technology — and its future developments — could help to make the crippled walk again, make the blind see, make the weak strong.

Like all technological developments, performance enhancers are a two-edged sword. They can be used to help athletes cheat the rules or they can be used to help the infirm to regain normal lives.

But it takes money to conduct such research. Professional sports could be the funding stimulus for developing artificial limbs and medications that can rebuild muscle and nerve tissue lost to injury or disease. The incentive to win lucrative championships could be a major force in the development of such biomedical technology.

Hang in there. You might make the major leagues yourself, one of these days.

Bova, a Naples resident, is the author of more than 120 books, including “Able One,” a high-tech thriller. Bova’s web site address is www.benbova.com

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