The battle for gold is about to begin — and science is taking its place behind the podium.
As Nature went to press, excitement was mounting in the United Kingdom that Bradley Wiggins could become the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France this weekend. Win or lose, Wiggins will be back in the saddle a week or so later for the London Olympics — and he is already making headlines as he rebuffs Internet gossip that riders rely on performance-boosting drugs. “I cannot be doing with people [the critics] like that,” was one of his more printable responses. “It justifies their own bone-idleness because they can't ever imagine applying themselves to do anything in their lives.”
The use of drugs in sport and our inability to detect every case of misuse has an unfortunate side effect: the unfair suspicion that falls on those who win clean.
So, why bother? If we cannot ensure that everyone who competes is drug free, is one solution to remove the need for them to be so? That's one of a number of provocative ideas highlighted by a special series of Olympics-themed articles in this week's issue of Nature. (The opening ceremony next week, after all, will take place just a 5,000-metre race or so from our London headquarters.)
How much faster and stronger would an army of Olympians be if they were all allowed to get higher? And would medically supervised doping be safer? Some experts quoted in our News Feature on page 287 think so. One even goes so far as to call for a cross-sport 'pro-doping' agency to invest in safer forms of enhancement. And why stop at chemical help? The future could see runners with bionic limbs and swimmers with feet made webbed by skin grafts — developments that could demand separate events, so great would the advantages be.
It may sound far-fetched, but according to a Comment piece on page 297, the Olympic playing field is already tilted towards those with “unearned advantages” over the rest: their genes. Enough common genetic ground has been found to link successful athletes, the article says, to ask whether the Olympics is merely a showcase for “hardworking 'mutants'”. If so, then would it be more sporting to hamper the lucky few — to make Usain Bolt run in heavy boots, say — or to cream the lot of them off into a separate competition entirely and leave the rest of us to have our mediocre fun?
For now, science remains a tool to catch those who break the existing rules, and to help those who want to play properly to compete. Profiles of some of the researchers who will work on these and other issues behind the scenes at London 2012 start on page 290. They include a psychologist who is working to assess intellectual disability in budding competitors in the Paralympics, and an epidemiologist waiting to map the inevitable spread of infectious disease among the several million expected visitors to London. Then there is the — unnamed — scientist who volunteered to be pulled through a swimming pool on a winch, subjected to a full body wax and then pulled through again, all to confirm what swimmers have long suspected, that body hair is a drag.
Finally, a Comment piece on page 295 examines the idea that humans evolved to run, and that a lifestyle without running could contribute to the modern boom in diseases such as obesity, diabetes and psychiatric disorders. Exercise doesn't just help muscles, it activates our brains. Armed with sticks and stones, our ancestors would have to chase down prey for hours, until the animals collapsed. The best weapon, the article says, was endurance. Bradley Wiggins, and the plucky researcher in the swimming pool, would surely agree.