The eyes have it

Thanks to laser surgery, Tiger Woods now has better-than-perfect vision. Is it fair play? Clare Rudebeck reports
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The Independent Online

Nothing destroys a sporting reputation like steroids. In 1998, Mark McGwire was a baseball hero. Wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan, "If Popeye wants his arms back - he'll have to wait until October", he obliterated the record for the number of home runs in a season. Last month, McGwire was branded a cheat for using a legal, performance-enhancing steroid precursor, androstenedione, when he achieved the feat.

Nothing destroys a sporting reputation like steroids. In 1998, Mark McGwire was a baseball hero. Wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan, "If Popeye wants his arms back - he'll have to wait until October", he obliterated the record for the number of home runs in a season. Last month, McGwire was branded a cheat for using a legal, performance-enhancing steroid precursor, androstenedione, when he achieved the feat.

It may seem like a simple case of right and wrong. McGwire used a steroid precursor, albeit one that was legal in baseball, and he has been punished. But the line between right and wrong in sport is being increasingly blurred. It is now possible to enhance performance through surgery and, very soon, gene therapy. Accusations of double standards are in the air.

When McGwire achieved his record, he was also wearing contact lenses. Natural vision is 20/20, but McGwire's lenses improved his vision to 20/10, so he could see, at a distance of 20ft, what a person of normal vision could see at 10ft. Clearly, that could make a difference when you're trying to hit a fast ball. But the hearing, which criticised him for his artificially enhanced muscles, made no mention of his artificially enhanced eyesight.

Earlier this month, Tiger Woods won golf's biggest tournament, The Masters, with the help of super-human eyesight. In 1999, he had laser eye surgery, which gave him 20/15 vision. After the surgery, he won seven of his next 10 events. Other top golfers who have upgraded their vision include England's Lee Westood, Fiji's Vijay Singh, Ireland's Padraig Harrington and America's Tom Kite. The golfing establishment does nothing to stop players artificially improving themselves in this way. The PGA European Tour, which represents top European golfers, had no comment on the subject. While steroids bring public condemnation, laser eye surgery provokes, at worst, curiosity.

The closer you look, the murkier it becomes. Take the drug EPO (erythropoietin), which is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), set up to clean up sport. The drug, which increases the capacity of the blood to carry oxygen, was developed in the mid-Eighties to help people who suffered from severe anaemia. Popular in endurance sports, it almost destroyed the European cycling circuit in the Nineties when stockpiles of the drug were confiscated from cyclists' hotel rooms.

However, altitude training - used by many athletes including Paula Radcliffe - has the same effect: increasing the red blood cell count and enabling the blood to carry more oxygen. To save the inconvenience of travelling to a mountain, some athletes use altitude chambers. Why is altitude training allowed, but not the use of EPO? "Because using EPO is a health risk," says Russell Langley, a spokesman for UK Sport, the government body which promotes excellence in sport.

That taking EPO to enhance performance can be dangerous is unequivocal. Several deaths among professional cyclists in the late Eighties and early Nineties have been linked to the drug. When WADA decides whether to ban a method or substance, it uses three criteria, and the risk of harm is only one. The other two are whether it will enhance performance and whether it violates the "spirit of sport". A method or substance must meet only two of the three criteria to be banned. Arguably, altitude training enhances performance and violates the "spirit of sport" because only athletes with wealthy sponsors can afford it. Indeed, WADA is reviewing the use of altitude chambers, and they may be outlawed by next year.

The issue becomes murkier still when you delve into the next big threat to the integrity of sport: gene doping. This involves injecting foreign DNA into an athlete to achieve similar results to those achieved through drug-taking. But there is no test for gene doping.

Gene doping is still in its infancy. Its effect on humans is unknown. WADA do not consider it a threat to sport. But Dr Andy Miah, a leading British scientist, claims that so-called genetically-modified athletes could already be competing in major events. "But it is not desirable for WADA to admit it," he said, "because they have no measures in place to stop it."

Dr Miah predicts that the eight-second 100 metres could be achieved in a few years with the help of gene doping. Meanwhile WADA, which recognised the threat of gene doping two years ago, is developing a test for it, and is confident of success. But Dr Miah, who is among the country's leading bioethicists with positions at Glasgow and Paisley universities, believes it may not be possible to test for all types of gene doping.

This may sound like the death knell for professional sport. But Dr Miah believes that gene doping could be good for sport if we changed our beliefs about cheating. "The idea of the naturally perfect athlete is romantic nonsense," he says. "An athlete achieves what he or she achieves through all sorts of means - technology, sponsorship, support and so on. Utilising genetic modification is merely a continuation of the way sport works; it allows us to create more extraordinary performances."

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