February 2, 2024 - 4:00pm

For years, Peter Thiel has made no bones about trying to extend the length and quality of his life by any means necessary. Now, with the announcement of plans to bankroll the proposed Enhanced Games — an “Olympics on steroids” in which athletes can use performance-enhancing drugs “out in the open and honestly” — the billionaire entrepreneur will be able to study the effects of uncontrolled experimentation on the human body in a controlled athletic setting. 

On the surface, the Enhanced Games — should they gain a footing and prosper, even in the modest “freakshow” way in which professional bodybuilding and slap fighting currently draw viewers — would mark a welcome step toward greater openness about drug use by athletes. No longer forced to beat drug tests or concoct excuses for failing them, competitors could instead focus on their real objectives: getting bigger, stronger, and faster in order to set new records. Not only that, retired athletes who still insist on being “all natural” to preserve their valuable brands might finally feel comfortable admitting that they’ve maintained their impressive physiques late into middle age thanks to PEDs.

Yet the Enhanced Games might also produce a less salutary result — the reduced participation of poor and working-class people in high-level athletics. Years ago, when I was working on a story with the help of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), one of their spokespeople noted that drug testing, for all its faults, not only reduces the overall incidence of drug use but also levels the playing field in sports like track and field, thus enabling impoverished youths with tremendous genetic talent from places such as Jamaica and the Bahamas to consistently outclass runners from richer European nations. 

Additionally, as the example of the systematic doping practised by the East German regime in the 1970s and 1980s made clear, anabolic steroids offer a much greater relative boost to women’s performance but also carry far worse side effects. These range from virilisation to infertility, putting female drug users at greater risk. 

Once a better understanding of doping is established — the science involving heavy usage is so limited because research institutions aren’t able to gain funding for tests — it will be far easier for wealthy parents to boost the performances of their offspring. At present, those advantages are primarily concentrated in sports which require lots of expensive equipment and lessons, such as tennis and golf, but could easily be extended to sports that are light on equipment but heavy on fast-twitch ability, like sprinting and basketball.

Interestingly, Thiel’s effort could restore what was for a long time the status quo. For much of recorded history, including much of the modern Olympics, most fields of athletic endeavour were dominated by members of the leisure classes. Aristocrats were the ones who had time to learn skills related to horse racing, sword fighting, and other tests of martial ability; they also had the resources needed to maintain this equipment, which separated them from the lower strata of society.

The working class began to participate in sports when aristocratic patrons, desirous of better results on the field of play, discovered that poorer individuals with tremendous natural talent could be enticed via monetary inducements to help give their local and national teams an edge. The century or so since has thus been characterised by the mass participation of lower-class and emerging-world athletes in a host of sports. 

Once scientists observing the Enhanced Games have devised the appropriate “secret sauces” for athletic success, all of that could fall by the wayside. A slum child from the favelas of São Paulo, once on an equal footing on the pitch if not the classroom, may find himself unwelcome anywhere. 

Meanwhile, the consolidation of material wealth and physical prowess — always strongly correlated — would at last be complete. In that respect, class distinctions could be written into the entire bodies of the rich, programmed to dominate in all aspects of life. A wealthy biohacker like Bryan Johnson could conceivably dial up the appropriate drug and gene-editing regimen to dominate in a given sport. Viewed in that light, for a venture capitalist interested in the further success of those who have risen through merit to the top of the heap, the Enhanced Games seem like a safe bet.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work