It has been described as dangerous by experts, while others are sceptical it will ever go ahead. In fact, there are few details about how the so-called Enhanced Games would operate, aside from one obvious point: it will have no drug testing.
But funded by venture capitalists and cryptocurrency backers, the idea of a drug-friendly sporting competition is gaining prominence, even more so in recent days.
While the Australian-born president of the games, Aron D’Souza, insists Australians and an Olympic gold medallist are among hundreds of athletes who want to compete in the event, none have come forward. Until this week.
“If they put up a million dollars for the [50-metre] freestyle world record, I’ll come on board as their first athlete,” James Magnussen, an Australian three-time Olympic medallist who won silver in the 100-metre freestyle in 2012, told a sports podcast. “I’ll juice to the gills and I’ll break it within six months.”
The former swimmer Leisel Jones, a three-time Olympic gold medallist, later said she also was not against the concept of the games, nor Magnussen’s participation, suggesting it might actually “keep clean sport, clean”.
In general, the idea of a drug-friendly games has already generated significant backlash from the mainstream sporting community.
“The Australian Olympic Committee believes the concept of a drug-enhanced games is dangerous,” the AOC chief, Matt Carroll, said in October.
Without referring specifically to the games, the Sport Integrity Australia education director, Lex Cooper, says even if drugs have been approved for legitimate medical treatments, using them outside those parameters can be “downright dangerous”. And many of the substances in use have not made it through clinical trials at all.
“They often get cancelled in phase one or two [of clinical trials] because they cause tumours or cancers,” she says. “They’re dangerous because of the side-effects, but we have no idea about the long-term effects, so it’s really scary and dangerous.”
When the Enhanced Games plan was announced, UK Anti-Doping said such a competition would be “unsafe, dangerous to athletes’ health and wellbeing [and would fly] in the face of fair play”. Drug Free Sport New Zealand said it had “no practical likelihood of implementation or success” and was dangerous and unethical, Stuff.co.nz reported.
The Australian Medical Association’s (AMA) position statement says using performance-enhancing substances and methods “tarnishes the health, reputations, and records of athletes and sporting teams, and every appropriate effort must be made to eliminate the use of banned substances and methods”.
Even in sports where doping control is not always enforced, there is concern. World Powerlifting’s Melbourne-based director, Robert Wilks, describes the Enhanced Games plan as “clearly dangerous”. He points out that in bodybuilding, where many organisations do not have doping control, there has been a “plethora of deaths in recent years, as drug use has increased”.
The Enhanced Games’ organisers claim “sports can be safer without drug testing” and suggest many athletes already use performance-enhancing drugs. They say that athletes will get a base salary and compete for prize winnings “larger than any other comparable event in history”, although the amount will not be revealed until later this year. The Olympic Games’ “streams of gold don’t trickle down to the athletes whose shoulders the Olympics rest upon”, they say.
Question of law enforcement
Venture capitalists and cryptocurrency backers Peter Thiel, Christian Angermayer, and Balaji Srinivasan have funded the plan. But it is not clear who would take part in the games, when and where they would be run, or exactly how much prize money would be at stake.
The games’ organisers say they’ll stump up the cash. In a statement, D’Souza says they have not spoken with Magnussen yet but they would pay the prize money for him and others to “join the enhanced movement”.
“We will write James Magnussen a one million dollar cheque for breaking the 50-metre freestyle world record at the Enhanced Games,” he says. “The first enhanced athlete to publicly break Usain Bolt’s world record will also get at least one million US dollars.” Bolt holds several sprinting records.
The event will include individual sports such as athletics, aquatics, gymnastics, strength, and combat. There will be medals for first, second and third placements, with the biggest prizes for breaking world records.
D’Souza was once the honorary consul of the republic of Moldova in Australia. He founded the Nexus Australian Youth Summit for young philanthropists and investors, and was the editor of the Journal Jurisprudence.
Other Australians on the team include Thomas Rex Dolan (D’Souza’s godson and the president of the Gen Z political party, which launched last year); artist Troy Austin and Jodhi Ramsden-Mavric, the only woman in the 11-person leadership team.
According to its website, the Enhanced Games claims it is pushing back “against the anti-science dogma purported by the incumbent sporting leagues” after “years of oppression”. It claims drug use in sport should be called a “demonstration of science” instead of “cheating”.
And instead of “steroid abuser”, they should be called an “enhanced athlete”, the Enhanced Games website says.
Another open question is how or whether law enforcement would get involved in such a competition.
There are almost 200 banned drugs and performance-enhancing methods registered by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Some of the most popular are anabolic steroids, human growth hormone (HGH), erythropoietin (EPO) and stimulants including amphetamines, cocaine and ecstasy, while new ones are being developed all the time.
But doping will not be mandatory, and laws around the use of performance-enhancing drugs vary around the world, while many are legal with a prescription. The AMA warns that recreational drugs are also used in sport cheating, and come with their own dangers, and that many drugs may be mixed with unknown substances.
Cooper says side-effects of drug use can include heart palpitations, dizziness and a loss of vision, along with impacts on blood clotting, strokes, heart attacks, fertility and the liver.
Steroid use can lead to short-term effects including baldness, acne and breast tissue development, she says. In women, it can lead to a deepening of the voice, abnormal menstrual cycles and mental health effects including aggression, anxiety and insomnia. It can also lead to an increased risk of dehydration, an increased heart rate and blood pressure, and a “failure to recognise when you’re injured”, she says.
Human growth hormone can cause health issues including gigantism, heart failure, diabetes and hypertension, and after puberty it can cause excessive growth in parts of the body.
EPO, a type of blood doping that leads to increased stamina, can also can thicken the blood, leading to clotting, strokes and heart attacks. Most associated with Lance Armstrong, it had already been linked to the deaths of 20 Belgian and Dutch cyclists between 1987 and 1990.
D’Souza says “every action has risks” and games organisers’ key to managing risk will be clinical supervision. He argues that drug testing is not about safety, but about fairness. And he says the pressure to use drugs is already there because of the number of elite athletes already using banned substances.
His fellow Australian, Wilks, of World Powerlifting, disagrees: “An Enhanced Games would exclude or at least disadvantage the many athletes who do not want to take drugs, whilst a major issue would be a lack of control over the degree of ‘enhancement’ … the most heavily doped athletes, the biggest risk-takers as far as their health goes, would be the winners.”