The race to improve human performance with drugs is on.
Credit: Mike Powell / Getty Images

In the eternal cat-and-mouse game of athletes using banned performance-enhancing drugs and sport-regulatory bodies trying to catch them, the cat, for once, is winning. This past January, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency brought down the most brazen and successful doper of all time, when Lance Armstrong confessed his performance-enhancing sins – testosterone, human-growth hormone, microdoses of EPO, which stimulates the production of red blood cells. Over the past year, Major League Baseball, an organization better known for looking the other way, has been collecting the doping records from a Florida "anti-aging clinic" of as many as 20 major leaguers. Baseball has already suspended Ryan Braun and A-Rod will likely be taking a prolonged, involuntary hiatus. Superstars who managed to flout the ban on steroids are finally facing official sanction.

That doesn't mean ambitious, elite athletes have stopped looking for a performance edge, but increasingly they're being pushed to explore creative new technologies that haven't been banned – or not yet. The evolution of these under-the-radar therapies has pretty much followed the same pattern as the banned drugs: They're conceived as solutions to medical problems, tested in labs on animals, then brought to the clinic to hopefully bring sick people closer to health. There, sports trainers discover them as ways to bring their athletes closer to gods.

But rather than giving themselves an injection of a banned pharmaceutical to build muscle or improve stamina, today's athletes are tapping into more exotic medical technologies to fine-tune their physiology for a competitive but not overtly unfair advantage. "It's about using human ingenuity to extract that last ounce of performance without crossing the line," says Gordon Uehling, an ex-tennis pro who has turned his suburban New Jersey training center into a kind of sports hi-tech lab.

Athletes today are being injected with their own stem cells to repair worn-down joints, training their brain waves to find the optimal frequencies for competition, flushing their lymphatic systems in pressurized air "pods," even tinkering with their DNA with a controversial but readily available supplement, in hopes of becoming the ageless, indestructible jocks of the future. As Jack Groppel, co-founder of the Human Performance Institute in Orlando, sees it: "When it comes to applying science to sports performance, the technology is improving so rapidly, the future is limited only by our imaginations."

Training the Brain to Play Like a ­Machine

Maybe it was inevitable that some sports scientists would turn their attention from fine-tuning the body to tinkering with the brain. Nick Podesta was the nation's top-ranked 16-and-under tennis player when injuries forced him to take time off from the tournament circuit. Like just about any tennis phenom capable of overwhelming with big ground strokes, he was occasionally tripped up by lapses in concentration and focus. Gordon Uehling, his coach and mentor, decided to plug Podesta into a neuro-feedback machine to see if he could train Nick's brain to be better at tennis.

Podesta now makes an extra weekly trip to CourtSense, Uehling's Tenafly, New Jersey headquarters, to plug into the Neurotopia machine, the first such system on the East Coast. This morning, he checks into a quiet, windowless room, settles into a cushy Barcalounger-type recliner, gets a number of electrical leads attached to his scalp, and plays a video game with his brain.

As Nick stares at the monitor screen on the wall directly in front of him, the computer registers the brain waves emanating from certain key neural regions. If there is a subtle increase in the higher-frequency beta waves, indicating a lively mental focus, the computer rewards him. The pink rocket ship on the screen billows smoke from its exhaust pipe, the music volume increases, and the screen brightens, creating a pleasing illusion of forward motion and good times in outer space. If he's in the lower theta frequencies, suggesting Nick has tuned out, the screen grows dim and quiet, no rocket smoke. "It's like a stethoscope to the brain," Uehling says from an adjoining room. Uehling's own brain is in full multitasking mode. He's observing Podesta's session on two monitors, one with the unfolding video game on it, one with real-time brain-wave analysis, and at the same time he's watching, via a laptop connection, the progress of another protégé, Christina McHale, No. 63 in the world, who is playing a tournament match in Rome, tuning up for the French Open.