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Today's Top Athletes: Human or Android?

Photo taken by Christophe Libert. There are no usage restrictions for this photo

While the debate continues over whether Caster Semenya, the 18-year-old South African track sensation who blew away the field and took the gold in the women's 800-meter in Berlin in August, is a man or a woman, we soon must confront an even more complex issue: Are elite athlete humans or androids?

International Association of Athletics Federations will decide Semenya's fate later this week as it announces the result of her gender test. Semenya will no longer be able to compete as a female if the association rules that a hormonal imbalance resulting from alleged intersexuality offers her an unfair advantage.

But if a little extra testosterone is a problem, what then do we do about the myriad performance-enhancing drugs and devises that athletes experiment with to go just a little longer, faster or higher?

Such is the topic of two new books from Johns Hopkins University Press, "The Price of Perfection," by Maxwell Mehlman, and "Performance-Enhancing Technologies in Sports," edited by Thomas Murray, Karen Maschke and Angela Wasunna.

Relative unfair advantage

Semenya's provocative case can provide a foundation for what is perceived as an unfair advantage. All top athletes, after all, have an advantage over non-athletes. They're bigger, stronger or faster. That's why they are athletes.

Lance Armstrong allegedly has unusually long femur bones for his height, which gives him better leverage when he pedals. Michael Phelps has a proportionally longer wingspan and size-14 feet that bend at the ankle 15 degrees more than most people, turning his feet into flippers. I'm a skinny freak who can't swim. Is that fair?

What, then, does Semenya have that other women don't have? To what degree do elite female athletes have male characteristics in terms of hormone balance and the distribution of muscle fiber and mass? And where do you draw the line, for clearly all individuals with ambiguous sex are not athletes.

I, Robot

If the sex topic isn't complicated enough, let's move on to where most athletes have been moving for sometime — to the realm of superhuman and robotic capabilities through biological, chemical and technological enhancement.

According to Melman in "Price of Perfection," most people today, if they chose, can improve their eyesight beyond 20/20 perfection through surgery; improve concentration and memory through various drugs; increase muscle mass by at least 40 percent through various chemical concoctions; and surgically reshape their body beyond recognition.

While this might sound like a vain pursuit, the impetus for such technology has been to make people healthier. Who could criticize a procedure to enable a blind person to see or a person with dementia or depression to think more clearly, for example?

Similarly, in the near future, most people will be able to alter their body at a genetic level. One goal in medicine is to make treatments more personalized, and this will entail altering the genetic constitution of your body to cure cancer, heart disease, diabetes and the scores of other chronic conditions that shorten lives.

So, when does this good technology cross the line? Should LASIK be banned for the athlete wanting an unfair advantage to see more clearly?

Super-conditioning a reality

As relayed in "Performance-Enhancing Technologies in Sports," there's trouble on the horizon. Barry Bonds and steroids is just the tip of the iceberg. The technologies mentioned in Melman's book — such as bionic body parts, chemical supplements, genetic "doping" and privileged access to equipment and training facilities — will be so pervasive that governing sports bodies will be unable to agree on what constitutes natural and fair.

In a series of essays written by academics, many of whom were elite athletes, "Performance-Enhancing Technologies in Sports" examines the nature and history of competition and the world of the athlete, from trainers and doctors to the sponsors and even governments who control their fate. The editors hope that their frank presentation of the issues from various perspectives will inspire intelligent discussion about the radical changes in sports upon us now.

Both books delve into the complexity of the performance-enhancement topic with athletic dexterity, and the depth of issues will surely leave your head spinning. But if you're genetically inferior like me and are prone to vertigo, there's medicine for that now.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His column, Bad Medicine, appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.