A Libertarian Solution to the Olympic Drug Mess?

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I'm not sure it was a smart move to have Johnnie Cochran there. And if Alan Dershowitz had showed up as well at the press conference in Sydney, I would have banged a gavel in my mind, and said, "That's it! Guilty as charged! Both Hunter and Jones should be banned from competition for life!"

The shot put champion C. J. Hunter may, of course, be innocent. He claims he took the anabolic steroid nandrolone with his iron supplement — that is, accidentally. Hunter's wife, the miraculous Olympian Marion Jones, may be even more innocent still. But somehow having the captain of the old O. J. Simpson dream team standing by did not ease the mind.

Poor Marion Jones, of course, is not charged with anything. But the case against her husband (he's not competing in these Olympics but has tested positive four times in recent months for nandrolone) cannot be enhancing her morale or concentration as she goes for five gold medals.

It's hard to know what to make of the Hunter mess and of the turbocharging pharmaceuticals that so corrupt athletics now — all the potions to build up jocks with muscle mass and aggression and more red blood cells (and a bloated liver, maybe). One feels pained for Andreea Raducan, the 16-year-old Romanian gymnast who was stripped of her gold medal in the all-around competition because, it seems, her team physician had prescribed a cold remedy containing the stimulant pseudoephedrine. Was it fair to take the medal away when her intent seemed innocent? But what of the doctor? Was he trying to cure Andreea's sniffles, or to jazz up her performance?

Drugs have so contaminated amateur sport that a radical solution is called for. A modest proposal: Would it make sense to usher in a new era of libertarian athletics — to make everything legal, including anabolic agents, human growth hormones, stimulants, beta-blockers and the rest? The athlete with the best dealer — or best pharmacy — wins? Why not get the narcs out of the Olympics, eliminate the demeaning ambush tests, the sudden preposterous demands for urine samples, and let athletes and coaches govern their behavior, weighing the risks of permanent damage to their bodies against competitive benefits?

I take it, in any case, that we are now at a clumsy and primitive stage of body-perfecting. Given the mapping of the human genome, given the future of bio-tinkering, I cannot imagine it will be long before the International Olympics Committee faces questions of fascinating and far more complex implication: Forget drugs. Entire Olympic teams might be bio-engineered and compete on their margins of mechanical perfection, like computer-designed Grand Prix cars and racing yachts. Swimmers, for example, engineered with enormous webbed feet and fabulous lung capacity. The new-model C. J. Hunter should be able to put the shot from Sydney to Perth.

Ah, but there is the sadness of it. The Olympic ideal is inherently nostalgic, and seems, every four years, to be increasingly remote from the dream of a time when beautiful humans could perform godly feats for their own magnificent sake, without commercials, and without the benefit of sinister, alchemical prescriptions — pills that extract gold from stolid hulks.