Enhancing Performance

Whatever your take on the London Olympics and other sporting spectacles, the last few years been remarkable for being the first in which the authorities have started to catch up with doping cheats.

Some professional sports, cycle racing in particular, had a long and extraordinary history of tolerance to doping, and even when testing was introduced, sanctions were often derisory, such as a 10 minute time penalty. This started to unravel in the notorious Festina affair, during the 1998 Tour de France, but there has still been no shortage of high-level competitors who have been caught cheating.

Occasional glimpses into this sordid underworld confirmed that dopers kept several steps ahead of testers: the notorious drug EPO, used to increase the fraction of red cells in the blood, was being widely abused in the 1990s, but was not tested in athletes until 2000. Because of the limitations of the original test method, many professional athletes continued to use it well into the new millenium without being detected, and Lance Armstrong’s eventual confession has confirmed how systematic (ab)use was almost universal for a while.

A related drug with similar effect, CERA hit the black market a few years ago, and some of those wanting to cheat in competition in 2008 assumed that it remained undetectable. For the first time, testing labs and sports authorities were prepared, and the sacking in disgrace of Riccardo Ricco from the Tour de France in that year was a first obvious success.

With performance-enhancing drugs being abused in so many sports, from boules to tug-of-war, it is perhaps surprising that they play little or no part in more conventional ways of earning a living.

Caffeine has long been the mainstay of many workers, including system administrators, programmers, and managers, but is hardly the EPO for the intellect. Its social tolerance and widespread use ensures that it is one of the few active substances that has also escaped a ban in competitive sports.

Amphetamines, used extensively during the Second World War to prolong demanding missions, have been largely discredited, and the ultimate disasters wrought by alcohol, narcotics, and ‘psychodelics’ such as LSD have become all too obvious.

This is despite prodigious research and heavy investment by pharmaceutical corporations. We have whole families of drugs to manipulate key transmitters like serotonin in the brain, but nothing approaching the utility of Viagra, for those wishing to enhance intellectual rather than erectile function.

Your doctor may be spoiled for choice when it comes to trying to treat depression, but ask for something to stimulate creative thought and you will probably be better off talking to a barista. Whilst a few shots of EPO can turn a decent athlete into a gold medal winner, to date no drug has been able to generate creative genius.

Our comparison becomes the more paradoxical when you consider the usual excuses given for doping in sport: it happens because of the big money involved, and because the doper thinks that it will give them the performance edge to enable them to win, thus achieve the success for which they are so driven.

In the non-sporting world of business, the money involved is greater still, the need to succeed as deep, and in many cases far more ruthless. Though sports magazines regularly carry adverts for products claimed to enhance performance, performance drinks, energy bars, and the like, I have yet to see any equivalent product in the pages of computer magazines: “Chew KipperGum, its Omega 3 fatty acids will fuel your Photoshop work beyond Steve Caplin’s”, or “Evening Primrose Tea puts the fourth dimension into Lightwave”?

The real world away from sport is so much more complex, of course, that many more vital influences are at work. No sooner are you pouring out your vision of Kubla Khan, than a person from Porlock knocks at the door.

Computers are a key part too, and it might be easy to think of Windows as the opium of the people, and the Mac as legitimate EPO.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 24 issue 22, 2008.