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Sprinter Ben Johnson of Canada, right, leads the pack to win the 100-meter dash finals in Olympic competition in Seoul, Korea, Sept. 24, 1988. American sprinter Carl Lewis, left of Johnson, finished second and Linford Christie, far left, of Great Britain was third. Olympic officials later stripped Johnson of his gold medal and world record at the games in Seoul, after he tested positive for steroids. Johnson was banned from competition for life.GARY KEMPER/The Associated Press

Alex Cyr is a journalist living in Toronto.

On Nov. 7, my group chat exploded. It comprises my former varsity cross-country and track-and-field teammates, and it sends my phone into seizure every time one of two things happens in the running universe: a world record is set, or a doping scandal emerges.

This time, it was because Mohamed Aagab, a sub-elite Canadian marathoner and a direct competitor to some of us, had tested positive for erythropoietin (EPO), a popular performance-enhancing drug. He has been banned from competition for three years, but the label of cheater – given to him by at least 30 disheartened runners on Facebook Messenger and no doubt by others in the track community – will stay with him for life.

Either I have particularly pitiless friends, or athletes, at least publicly, tend to take a zero-tolerance stance on doping. They really have no choice. Each failed drug test injects more doubt into the idea that sports are even worth watching, funding and playing. It has become fair to question why we even bother with drug testing if so many athletes are cheating anyway. Some say: Let’s just let everyone dope and be done with it!

Now, we have frivolously wished this concept into existence, in the form of the Enhanced Games: Olympics without drug testing, premiering in December in Australia. These new games have a significant online following, 500 registered athletes, and support from a handful of Olympians (Christina Smith, a Canadian bobsledder and 2002 Olympian, figures in their Athlete Commission). Their social channels have also made claims that one registered participant has already doped his way to a 100-metre world record that’s faster than Usain Bolt’s, and use this tidbit to brand these games as “science set free.” Kind of like eugenics. Or Frankenstein.

While the idea of two roided-up sprinters blazing down the 100-metre runway in eight seconds with near-exploding quad muscles admittedly sounds like great TV, it also feels unnatural and icky, like buying an AI-generated image instead of a human-made painting, or eating lab-grown meat. Many athletes also hate it: American sprinting star Michael Johnson called it a “ridiculous PR stunt.”

Naysayers have not managed to fully laugh the concept off the face of the Earth. It’s partly because Enhanced Games creator Aron D’Souza, an Oxford-trained lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, peddles a few hard truths. He calls the Olympics a horribly run business that robs athletes of profits, and says it is already rife with doping, and he’s right: The International Olympic Committee’s top-ranking executives take home eight-figure salaries, whereas less than half of Olympic athletes consider themselves financially stable, as the Olympics themselves pay athletes no money for winning medals. Plus, doping remains an existential problem in mainstream sports: The World Anti-Doping Agency estimated that up to 40 per cent of athletes might have been benefiting from performance-enhancing substances at the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2021. There will no doubt be a doping scandal of one kind or another at this year’s Summer Games in Paris.

Mr. D’Souza’s solution to both problems, however radical, is a venture-capital-funded, profit-sharing competition without drug testing, which he said would even the pharmacological playing field, all while putting money in the pockets of athletes; he has hinted at a million-dollar prize for breaking a world record. Listen to one of his eloquent podcast appearances, and you might begin thinking that his idea makes sense.

And yet, he is overlooking a fatal problem with pro-doping ideology, beyond the obvious health risks of somewhat unchecked substance use: Elite Olympic athletes will not endure the shame that would come with an admission of doping. It’s a shame so persistent that Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who famously failed a drug test and relinquished his 100-metre gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, is a pariah to this day. In the 35 years since the media repeatedly called him a “loser” and a “cheater,” only two Canadian Olympic track-and-field athletes and a handful of fringe hobbyists have been popped for doping. And every time they do, negative press surfaces, group chats heat up, and they fade into the darkness without as much as a well wish or a cushy apology to Oprah Winfrey. No matter how financially favourable the Enhanced Games could become, no appearance fee is worth bankrupting one’s reputation.

I would be shocked to see any Canadian Olympians play ball. So if elite athletes do not partake in the Enhanced Games, who will? It’s possible that it becomes attractive to people who have nothing to lose in the sporting world. They might become a genre of X Games for sub-elite athletes: a new, roided-up battleground for weekend warriors, to the chagrin of local turkey trots everywhere. I have no problem with those games existing, though I am convinced that such an event would self-select its way out of the spotlight and soon be forgotten. Don’t believe me? Name me three famous X Games athletes.

This all might sound harmless, if not silly, but how does an arms race to create the fastest weekend warrior end? Granted, Mr. D’Souza said the games will require and fund medical exams for athletes to ensure they have no underlying conditions that would make doping more dangerous than it already is, and that they would ban particularly dangerous substances (for example, those that enlarge your heart), but are we willing to toy with those limits? We cannot even make up our minds about how to litigate high-tech running shoes; how can we possibly decide where to draw the line on what we put inside our bodies?

The Enhanced Games’ regulatory board can probably agree to keep illegal drugs such as cocaine – or clearly toxic ones such as cyanide – on their banned list, but what about common performance enhancers with potential long-term side effects? EPO, Mr. Aagab’s drug of choice, carries coagulation risks so dire that professional cyclists who used it would wake up in the middle of the night to train so as to prevent their blood from clotting. The anabolic steroids that Ben Johnson ingested, meanwhile, come with potential side effects that range from reduced sperm count and testicle shrinkage to sudden heart attacks and strokes. How might a teenager want to train to one day become an enhanced athlete – start microdosing on human growth hormone? Forget fighting for their legitimacy; this competition is hurtling toward a liability battle of epic proportions.

And yet, some of the world’s top athletes and minds are signing off on this apparent nightmare. George Church, the Harvard professor and geneticist who helped initiate the Human Genome Project in 1984, figures in its Ethical Advisory Commission, a five-person panel that also includes a NASA systems engineer, a serial CEO and a naturopathic doctor. It begs the question: Why are world-leading scientists potentially risking their reputations for this fringe movement? Perhaps they predict the games to become a massive hit not in 2024, but decades from now, especially if the Olympics continue to financially fail their participants. Canadian bobsledder Christina Smith, upon joining the Enhanced Games Athlete Commission, told The Guardian that she would be “delighted to be in an organization that did not exploit their athletes.”

The world of sport occasionally goes through paradigm shifts; some of its most strongly held beliefs of the past now sound absurd. Black men were banned from Major League Baseball until 1947; women were denied participation in the Boston Marathon until 1967, when Kathrine Switzer snuck into the race and finished it despite being physically assaulted mid-run by one of its organizers. Perhaps, one day, we will also look at the war on drugs in sport as an antiquated concept – a futile attempt at placing guardrails on something we’ve never really controlled, like cannabis in Canada pre-2018. The Enhanced Games would not even be the first organization to turn a blind eye to doping: Pro wrestling, mixed martial arts, and some sections of bodybuilding are already known to loosely monitor banned substance use. Perhaps the drugged Olympics are the next logical step.

But it is also possible – and my hope – that burgeoning support for the Enhanced Games could bring a different, more positive kind of change, grounded not in how we view athletes who dope, but in how we pay Olympians who do not. The International Olympic Committee might – and should – interpret the participation of each athlete and thought leader in these doped-up competitions as a scathing warning to better support its own participants. In that way, the Enhanced Games, however weird they may be, might prove to become the disrupter that the Olympics desperately need.

For now, we anxiously await their inaugural edition in December. I will admit, I am incredibly curious to see an “enhanced” person running faster than Usain Bolt, or swimming better than Michael Phelps. But I would not want to be that person, and I bet that neither will the serious athletes who have so far managed to avoid doping infractions. The Olympics, despite their broken business model, still exist because clean human achievement matters – or, at least, the perception of it does.

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