Longevity scientists in UAE keep close eye on divisive drug-fuelled athletics event

Enhanced Games could boost healthcare research, founder claims, amid criticism over promotion of doping

Ben Johnson of Canada appeared to win the 100-metre final at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul but he tested positive for an anabolic steroid and had his gold medal taken away. AP
Powered by automated translation

A proposed controversial athletic competition fuelled by banned performance enhancing drugs could bring about research to benefit human longevity, its founder has claimed.

Hundreds of athletes have signed up for the Enhanced Games, planned for next year, as they seek to push the boundaries of human performance while using substances prohibited by the International Olympic Committee.

While some critics have described the Enhanced Games as dangerous, the event’s organisers have claimed that it will enable the study of an unchecked field of research – drug-fuelled sporting performance – which could lead to a new range of medicine designed to help humans live longer and healthier lives.

Lessons learnt from the Enhanced Games could inspire technological innovation in healthcare systems
Dr Raees Tonse, Founder of Longevi-city

Aron D’Souza, president of the games, claims the event will be the safest in history, with drug-taking controlled and monitored throughout.

“Ultimately, the goal of the Enhanced Games is to upgrade humanity, upgrade mankind into version 2.0, to create a new kind of superhumanity where our biology is no longer our limitation,” he said.

“I believe ageing is a disease that we should be able to treat, cure and eventually solve. This may sound like science fiction, just like artificial intelligence was five years ago before we discovered ChatGPT.”

Dr Raees Tonse, founder of Longevi-City, a centre for healthy living proposed for Ras Al Khaimah, said that although the games are risky, they do have scientific potential. “Promotion of the Enhanced Games may normalise risky behaviour and performance enhancing substance use, extending beyond sports and influencing societal attitudes,” he said.

“However, they can also fuel technological innovation in sports science and human performance enhancement, leading to the development of tools that optimise athletic performance and minimise injury risks.

“This innovation extends to health care, rehabilitation and human augmentation technologies, offering benefits to longevity science and healthy ageing.”

At the core of RAK’s proposed Longevi-City lies a profound commitment to holistic wellness, from preventive screenings to specialised treatments.

Residents will have access to comprehensive healthcare services that prioritise early detection and proactive intervention.

Amenities will include fitness centres, holistic spas, meditation gardens and nutrition-counselling services, with plenty of opportunity for residents to engage in activities promoting physical health and vitality.

Dr Tonse did not reveal details of when the city may be built, or the cost of the project.

“Research on the long-term effects of enhancements and their ethical, legal and social implications in competitive settings is limited,” he said.

“Interdisciplinary research is crucial to understand biological, psychological and societal impacts, leading to evidence-based guidelines for safe and responsible use.

“Lessons learnt from the Enhanced Games could inspire technological innovation in healthcare systems, leading to the development of novel tools, therapies and interventions to improve health outcomes and support ageing populations.”

The proposed games are as much a scientific experiment as an elite level competition, and are backed by investors such as venture capitalist Christian Angermayer, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and former Coinbase chief technical officer Balaji Srinivasan.

However, critics believe few, if any, world records will be beaten at the event, and have questioned the ethics of hosting such a spectacle, particularly over safety concerns related to combat sports.

Some high-profile athletes have signed up to compete in the games, including former Olympic silver medallist swimmer James Magnussen.

Known as “The Missile”, Magnussen, 33, hopes to break the 50-metre freestyle swimming world record of 20.91 seconds while using banned substances.

The record has stood since 2009, and if the Australian breaks it, he stands to win a $1 million prize.

Mr D’Souza said the games have been inundated with applicants, but he has yet to formally settle on a venue, with several cities expected to stage events around the world.

“Right now, if you’re a billionaire, a CEO, a celebrity or pro athlete, you know performance enhancements are real,” he said.

“They can make you a younger, faster, stronger human being.

“In the first Enhanced Games, where we smash dozens of world records in a two-hour television special, the world will see that and ask: ‘What is he on and how do I get it?’

“We have seen it with Ozempic [a diabetes drug commonly used for weight loss] that this has the potential to become the biggest industry of all time.”

Anti-doping researchers at the University of Lausanne estimate that the open use of performance enhancers in safe clinical quantities could lead to about a 5 per cent gain over present world records.

While World Anti-Doping Agency data suggests that fewer than 2 per cent of athletes take banned substances, others believe that number to be considerably higher.

A 2018 Wada-commissioned report into athletes competing at the 2011 Arab Games in Doha and the World Athletics Championships in South Korea found 44 per cent of the 2,167 athletes had taken performance enhancers.

“Doping appears remarkably widespread among elite athletes and remains largely unchecked despite current

biological testing,” said investigators.

At the 2020 Summer Olympic Games held in Tokyo, Japan, nine positive doping results were recorded in athletes.

At the previous Games in Brazil, a damning Wada report found that fewer than 50 per cent of scheduled drug tests were carried out on some days as a result of a lack of training for volunteer haperones.

Of the daily target of 350 urine samples, on average, only 200 to 250 were collected.

Dr Michael Sagner, an advisory board member at King’s College London centre for ageing research, is an independent medical safety adviser for the Enhanced Games.

He said banned performance enhancers could help regeneration in health care.

The Enhanced Games are “obviously hugely provocative” and have caused a lot of controversy, Dr Sagner said.

“Athletes are trying to manipulate a wide range of angles and pathways in order to gain an advantage.

“For athletes, many of these substances, like testosterone, are illegal to to use. But they’re very common, and CEOs and actors have openly admitted using these enhancements.”

Health risk for athletes

However, Dr Sagner noted, the use of performance enhancers carries inherent health risks.

“They all increase heart rate [and] blood pressure. That is the main concern – cardiovascular risk,” he said.

Dr Sagner said the safety protocols that will be applied at the Enhanced Games are far more advanced than those used at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his 100-metre gold medal after testing positive for banned substances.

That race has since been described as the dirtiest race in history, with six out of eight participants failing drugs tests.

Across all events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, 23 records were broken.

This summer, attention turns to Paris to see if that total can be overtaken.

At King’s College, specialists like Dr Sagner operate the only accredited forensic drug lab, and performed testing for the 2012 London Olympics.

He believes the results of the Enhanced Games will be much less sensational than people expect.

“People believe injections, pills and tablets are going to take an average guy to a high-performance level,” said Dr Sagner. “That is not going to happen.”

Updated: May 08, 2024, 5:00 AM