Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Monday, August 13, 2012

Olympic fever, olympic medicine


Will you be missing the Olympics now that they are finally over? I will.

If you enjoyed watching the games, you'll also enjoy the NEJM perspective by David Jones [1], which gives a historical overview of olympic medicine and how it has studied, over the years, the limits of the human body.

It's interesting to read how in the 1904 games in St. Louis the marathon winner had taken strychnine sulfate, five eggs, and brandy during the race and still required medical attention afterwards. Fast forward to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles: seven cyclist received blood transfusion to enhance their performance, a practice later condemned by the Olympic Committee.

What drives us to push the limits? It's indeed spectacular to see how far the human body can do and what it can achieve, and yet we step back horrified when we hear about performance-enhancing drugs, or when we read about the borderline training young gymnast undergo (somebody went as far as to define it "child abuse"). When does the body stop being a body and when does it start being a machine? Some sports have in the past received harsh criticism for the life-long consequences they carry. Is medicine's role to let us enjoy these beautiful performances while preserving the athlete's health, or is it to keep pushing the envelope and see how far we can go? Where do we draw the line between what is allowed and what is not? If athletes went as far as blood transfusions in 1984, does it mean gene therapy will be the new dare in the next decade? Would you be willing to permanently alter your genes in order to reach your dreams?

[1] David S. Jones (2012). Olympic Medicine New England Journal of Medicine, 367, 289-292

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