‘I will go all out’: James Magnussen says as an improved athlete he could break the 50m freestyle world record ‘within six months’.Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP
Experts have described it as dangerous, while others are skeptical it will ever happen. In fact, there are few details about how the so-called Enhanced Games would work, aside from one obvious point: there will be no drug testing.
But funded by venture capitalists and cryptocurrency backers, the idea of a drug-friendly sports league is gaining traction, even more so in recent days.
Although Australian-born Games President Aron D’Souza insists Australians and an Olympic gold medalist are among the hundreds of athletes wanting to take part in the event, no one has come forward. Until this week.
“If they got a million dollars for the [50-metre] freestyle world record, I’m coming on board as their first athlete,” James Magnussen, an Australian three-time Olympic medalist who won silver in the 100m freestyle in 2012, said in a sports podcast. “I will suck the gills dry and in six months I will break it.”
Former swimmer Leisel Jones, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, later said she was also not against the concept of the games, nor against Magnussen’s participation, suggesting it could actually “keep a clean sport, clean”.
Overall, the idea of drug-friendly games has already generated significant backlash within the mainstream sports community.
“The Australian Olympic Committee believes the concept of drug-enhanced games is dangerous,” AOC chief Matt Carroll said in October.
Without specifically referring to the games, Sport Integrity Australia education director Lex Cooper says even if drugs are approved for legitimate medical treatment, their use outside these parameters can be “downright dangerous”. And many of the substances used did not survive clinical trials at all.
Related: The Enhanced Games – A Drug Olympics Where Cheaters Can Flourish | Ben Bloom
“They are often canceled in phase one or two [of clinical trials] because they cause tumors or cancer,” she says. “They are dangerous because of the side effects, but we have no idea about the long-term effects, so it is really scary and dangerous.”
When the Enhanced Games plan was announced, UK Anti-Doping said such a competition would be “unsafe and dangerous to the health and well-being of athletes. [and would fly] in the light 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 (AMA) position statement states that the use of performance-enhancing drugs and methods “affects the health, reputation and performance of athletes and sports teams and that all appropriate efforts should be made to prevent the use of prohibited substances and methods to eliminate”.
Even in sports where doping control is not always enforced, there are concerns. Melbourne-based World Powerlifting director Robert Wilks has described the Enhanced Games plan as “clearly dangerous”. He points out that in the bodybuilding sector, where many organizations have no doping controls, there has been “a plethora of deaths in recent years as drug use has increased.”
The organizers of the Enhanced Games claim that “sport can be safer without drug testing” and suggest that many athletes are already taking performance-enhancing drugs. They say athletes will be paid a base salary and compete for prize winnings “bigger than any other comparable event in history”, although the amount will not be announced until later this year. The “golden streams of the Olympic Games do not trickle down to the athletes on whose shoulders the Olympic Games rest,” they say.
Matter of law enforcement
Venture capitalists and cryptocurrency financiers Peter Thiel, Christian Angermayer and Balaji Srinivasan funded the plan. But it is not clear who would participate in the games, when and where they would take place, or exactly how much prize money would be at stake.
Games organizers say they will raise the money. In a statement, D’Souza said they had not yet spoken to Magnussen but would pay the prize money for him and others to “join the improved movement”.
“We will write James Magnussen a check for one million dollars for breaking the world record in the 50m freestyle at the Enhanced Games,” he says. “The first improved athlete to publicly break Usain Bolt’s world record will also receive at least $1 million.” Bolt has several sprint records to his name.
Related: Australian swimmer James Magnussen says he will ‘capture imaginations’ to win $1.5 million prize in Enhanced Games
The event includes individual sports such as athletics, water sports, gymnastics, strength and fighting. There will be medals for first, second and third place, with the biggest prizes for breaking world records.
D’Souza was once honorary consul of the Republic of Moldova in Australia. He founded the Nexus Australian Youth Summit for young philanthropists and investors, and edited 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 on the 11-person leadership team.
According to their website, the Enhanced Games claims it is pushing back “against the anti-scientific dogma asserted by the established sports leagues” after “years of oppression.” It claims that drug use in sports should be called a ‘demonstration of science’ rather than ‘cheating’.
And instead of “steroid abuser,” they should be called an “enhanced athlete,” says the Enhanced Games website.
Another open question is how and whether law enforcement agencies would become involved in such competition.
There are nearly 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, with new ones being developed all the time.
But doping will not be mandatory, and the laws surrounding the use of performance-enhancing drugs vary around the world, with many being legal with prescription. The AMA warns that recreational drugs are also used in sports cheating and carry 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 vision loss, along with effects on blood clotting, strokes, heart attacks, fertility and the liver.
Steroid use can lead to short-term effects, including baldness, acne and the development of breast tissue, 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, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and an “inability to recognize when you’re injured,” she says.
Human growth hormone can cause health problems including gigantism, heart failure, diabetes and high blood pressure, and after puberty it can cause excessive growth in parts of the body.
EPO, a form of blood doping that leads to increased endurance, can also thicken the blood, leading to clotting, strokes and heart attacks. It is mainly associated with Lance Armstrong and has already been linked to the deaths of twenty Belgian and Dutch cyclists between 1987 and 1990.
D’Souza says that “every action involves risk” and the key to managing risk for game organizers 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 compatriot Wilks of World Powerlifting disagrees: “An Enhanced Games would exclude or at least disadvantage the many athletes who do not want to use drugs, while a major problem would be a lack of control over the degree of ‘improvement’. … the most heavily endowed athletes, the biggest health risk takers, would be the winners.”