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Outside the Lines

The Athlete of the 21st Century

Tom Farrey

Introduction
Science to give the human body a makeover

Monday
Genetics: Finding the right stuff

Tuesday
Rehab: Knees made easy

Wednesday
Bionics: Calling Steve Austin

Thursday
Next 100 years: The future is in your hands

ALSO SEE:

Audio chat wrap: Princeton geneticist Lee Silver and Oakland A's strength coach Bob Alejo

Chat wrap: Gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi

MULTIMEDIA:

Audio
 OTL
Princeton's Lee Silver says genetic engineering will allow humans to use genes from other animals to run fast.
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 OTL
Knicks guard Chris Childs says he would give his kids superhuman traits if science allowed it.
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 OTL
Latrell Sprewell doesn't see anything wrong with giving his kid enhanced genes.
Standard | Cable Modem

Tuesday, June 3
Morphing the human body
By Tom Farrey
ESPN.com

At a recent New York Knicks practice, Latrell Sprewell chewed on the delicious question of whether, if he had the opportunity, he would allow himself to be cloned. After all, some experts believe a carbon copy of a human being will be made by the end of the decade. The NBA's resident bad boy flashed a mischievous smile, perfectly aware of the answer much of America would want him to give.

Latrell Sprewell
Latrell Sprewell wants his kids to jump even higher than him.

"Naahh," he said. "One of me is enough for this world."

Besides, why make a replica of yourself when you can improve upon the original? Endow your boy (or girl) with not only your mad hops, but the size of Shaquille O'Neal, the wingspan of Kevin Garnett, or the raw hand-eye coordination of Jason Williams. Yes, given the chance to genetically engineer his child, Spree would play Dr. Frankenstein.

"If I could pass it on to him in a safe way, I'd do it in a heartbeat," he said.

It may seem like a wild notion, but scientists believe that later this century wealthy individuals like Sprewell will have the option to create designer children. Then, if they get seriously hurt later in life, they might be able to, say, buy cybernetic legs that work better than those of any human, or perhaps regrow fingers that are longer than the originals.

All of this is due to recent revolutionary advances in the areas of genetics, biotechnology, tissue engineering and bionics. None of this research is being done in the name of sports, so it has slipped below the radar screen of most fans and sports media. But scientists say there's no reason this knowledge won't be applied to make superhuman athletes, perhaps better than we can even imagine.

The lab coats in most of the key disciplines are quite a ways away from being able to endow people with these qualities -- the human body is hard to beat, after all. But now they at least believe they have a rough blueprint for how to get there.

Science project
You might be surprised how much science already is allowing humans to perform at higher levels. This special interactive graphic details the progress being made on various body parts.

Many geneticists, for instance, say that advances in gene therapy, in which genes that predispose people to certain diseases could be replaced with healthy genes, will make it possible later this century also to make sure unborn babies end up with elite athletic characteristics.

"I don't think any of this is science fiction," said Dr. Wayne Grody, geneticist at UCLA. "This is just the normal course of biology."

Dr. Gregory Stock, a UCLA bioethicist, wonders if the overall popularity of spectator sports will decline in a world dominated by superhuman athletes.

"In a sense it will be very sad, because a great deal would be lost when there is an athletic competition where we can't really imagine ourselves in that situation," said Stock, director of the Program on Medicine, Technology and Society at the UCLA School of Medicine.

And yet, how much does the average fan share with the pro athlete now, physically?

Most NBA players are abnormally tall -- the kind of circus tall that makes them instantly recognizable on the street. Television lies. The actual size of those NFL linemen who bang against each other on weekends is only revealed when standing next to ordinary folk. Female Olympic gymnasts are a unique genetic cocktail of strength, flexibility, coordination and delayed pubescence.

The series
This five-part online series is a companion to the ESPN Outside the Lines' presentation of "Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The 21st Century Athlete," originally aired on Jan. 14. Learn where the world of science is taking the world of sports over the next 100 years through a package that includes original reporting, polls, and chat sessions.

Even many of the most reasonably sized athletes possess some bizarre physical advantage. John Stockton has a heart rate in the mid-30s, about half that of the average male. Allen Iverson has disproportionately long arms to help him get off shots. NFL defensive rookie of the year Jevon Kearse, undersized for a defensive end at 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, has a 40-inch vertical leap and hands that can each stretch far enough from thumb to pinky (12 inches) to cover a desktop computer screen.

Spectator sports already are a freak show -- one that 21st-century science may simply augment.

"The notion of being human will become whatever we want it to be," said Simon Eassom, a philosophy professor with De Montfort University in England who studies the impact of technology on athletic performance.

The notion of cyborgian cyclists and genetically rich gym rats may seem repulsive, but keeping them out of elite sports might not be easy. Ethical lines aren't so easily drawn in a country where already one out of every 10 Americans are walking around with body parts (pacemakers, artificial hips and knees, shoulder implants, intraocular lenses and so on) they weren't born with.

Besides, the sports world finally likes science. Back in the 1970s, steroids were something those cheatin' East Germans used. Baseball, the most traditional of American sports, looked upon even weightlifting with distrust. Now, it's OK with most people if a well-muscled Mark McGwire takes androstenedione -- a substance once used by the East Germans and likened by some to anabolic steroids -- especially if he's helping revitalize a sport.

Right or wrong, for better or worse, the notion of what is "natural" versus "unnatural," and therefore acceptable versus unacceptable, is up for debate. And there are no easy answers. If androstenedione is to be banned, then what about creatine? Gatorade? Breathe-right strips? All are products foreign to the body that are used to enhance performance.

A genetically altered child wouldn't have to have any foreign substances in his body.

"You're not going to be able to wish this away," Stock said. "This is part of our future, and we'll have to deal with it. And if sports changes from where it is today, is that really so bad? Maybe it's something that we won't be entirely comfortable with, but I'll bet that the children of the future will be completely comfortable with it.

"Perhaps they will (look at) the kinds of competitive activities that we find so exciting today as sort of pedestrian and mundane and boring."

That's the problem when sports has only one, unenhanced Sprewell.

Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn.com.



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