Are Olympic Athletes Really Genetically Superior to the Rest of Us?
As the Olympic Games began in London, so too did the debates focusing on the medical implications of becoming a world-class athlete. Are those flat-chested, prepubescent, 17-year-old gymnasts subjected to training that’s akin to child abuse? That’s what some pediatricians called it in a 1996 review study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. And how much do those blood transfusions improve an athlete’s performance? Enough to justify forcing the return of medals by Olympic athletes who admit to “blood doping”?
Harvard Medical School historian Dr. David Jones raised such questions in a paper published last Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine that examined the past 150 years of journal publications — even before the modern Olympics were revived in 1896 — to see what doctors thought of extreme exercise such as the 26.2-mile marathon.
“In 1900, it would have been inconceivable to doctors that tens of thousands of people would eventually be running marathons,” said Jones. The medical world back then assumed that only a handful of elite individuals had the endurance to finish such a race. Experts back then also believed that excessive training left adolescents “listless and stupid,” as one researcher contended in an 1867 journal article.
Other myths that have since been debunked: Participation in any type of sports would impair a woman’s fertility, and that the human body wasn’t capable of running a mile in less than four minutes. The current world record is 3:43.13.
“What’s the limit of human performance? We still don’t know,” Jones said.