Q&A: The founder of the Enhanced Games
An Olympics *with* doping? Tim Heming talks with the businessman behind the idea.
Maybe you heard about The Enhanced Games in the news lately: An Olympics *with* doping—funded and backed by Aron D’Souza, who is probably best known as the lawyer in the Peter Thiel revenge case against Gawker and who had a book written about him for those efforts.
Our intrepid friend in the UK, Tim Heming, sat down with D’Souza to talk about the Enhanced Games, if/how/why it could work, and what his goal actually is. It’s an interview that may make you absolutely nuts—and definitely leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Is this the most cynical and saddest idea in sports, or kind of a smart media play to highlight longstanding issues?
You might have caught wind of The Enhanced Games during the past couple of weeks—because the new concept of an Olympics-style event where performance enhancing drugs aren’t banned, but are actively encouraged, has been making headlines like a PR campaign on steroids.
The brainchild of Aron D’Souza, a London-based businessman, the first edition of the controversial Games are planned to run in December next year.
D’Souza, who says he has invested millions of his own dollars into the project, has lofty ambitions to go head-to-head with the Olympics Games, which he claims is riven with corruption, wastes billions on bureaucracy and infrastructure vanity projects, and has exploited its athletes for decades.
We caught up with him to try to understand the motivation behind the idea and whether he’s planning to include swim-bike-run among his events.
Aron, thank you for your time. Why did you decide to start the Enhanced Games?
Aron D’Souza: I’ve been inspired by the Olympic Games since I was a small child. I remember watching 1992 in Barcelona as a seven-year-old and clearly remember seeing Juan Antonio Samaranch, then the IOC [International Olympic Committee] president, being front and center. I thought: ‘Who is this guy?’
As I got older, I read about him and was like: ‘Wow, he’s a really bad person!’ An associate of [Spanish dictator] Francisco Franco who rules the Olympics with an iron fist. It continues to this day under Thomas Bach’s regime.
That was gestating in my mind for a long time, then I also read a lot of academics, such as Dr. Julian Savulescu from Oxford, who is a bioethicist, outlining the hypocrisy of the anti-doping regime, how it’s not science-based or in the interests of the athletes, and how it creates an unsafe environment.
About a year ago, I talked with a friend in Los Angeles, who is an endocrinologist, who got really big, really quickly by taking steroids. I said: ‘But you’re a doctor!’ And he replied that he knew how to do it safely.
Hearing how he was so open about it, and learning that about 14.83% of men in America have tried anabolic steroids [per a survey he says they conducted of sports-watching Americans] and 95% of NFL players have used anabolic steroids, it’s really quite prevalent in our society. Someone has to bring this to the forefront.
We’ve had so many athletes, scientists and doctors reach out to us since we’ve launched and we can really see that an alternative to the Olympic Games is here. I think we can turn this into something very real because people are unhappy with the way international sports is run.
If we start with anti-doping, why do you feel the current model is “unsafe?”
Number one, WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] is not an independent entity. Its funding comes from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Thomas Bach is in control of it. It's the secret police.
Number two, the drugs that are excluded under the WADA code are purely subjective. It’s not a question of a safety threshold. The WADA code reads: ‘Does it affect the spirit of sports?’ Let’s be clear, that has nothing to do with athlete safety, but everything to do with the IOC’s ability to control athletics.
The IOC was born by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who we all know was a racist, classist, and whose method of control over the athletes was amateurism. Until the 1980s, you had to be an amateur athlete and if you had ever taken money for being a professional—sponsorship or otherwise—you were branded a cheat.
The Olympic movement of the early 20th century talked about clean sports and that was all about keeping professionalism out of sports. They lost that by 1992 and ever since then they have ramped up drug testing as a means of control over the athletes.
Rivers of gold are flowing into the top, $8 billion dollars of revenue is coming into the IOC, Thomas Bach is flying around in a private jet, living in a palace, and the athletes have never stood up or gotten their fair share. Why is that? Because of the drug testing regime. It’s the IOC’s method of control over the athletes. If the athlete is causing any trouble, whether it’s politically or in terms of unionization, the first thing they say is: ‘We’re going to retest your old samples.’ There are millions of frozen samples and they have tacitly allowed the top athletes to use performance enhancements so that they can keep this method of control in place. It is sick and pernicious.
Do you have any evidence for these claims?
I’ve talked to hundreds of athletes and hear the same story over and over again. We have built the official opposition movement to the IOC and are building a WikiLeaks-style operation. We are gathering evidence on Olympic corruption and I’m looking forward to sharing hard evidence with journalists. The soft evidence is indicting, but there will be documentary evidence in due course.
This is a rotten system and at the core of it is the financial exploitation of athletes, which has allowed sports administrators to keep their multi-million dollar salaries and private jets flying.
The IOC would firmly dispute this. Have you faced legal action from the IOC for your allegations?
I look forward to it. If you look through my history, I have been a very successful litigator. I led the litigation against Gawker Media for the billionaire Peter Thiel, where we won one of the largest invasion of privacy judgements in history involving the wrestler Hulk Hogan.
I hope we will have the opportunity to debate the IOC, whether in a journalistic form or in court, because ultimately they need to be held to account. In the 120-year history of the Olympic movement I’m quite confident to say I'm the very first person who has gone to work everyday trying to build an alternative.
What format is this alternative going to take?
The core problem with the Olympic Games is that it uses a format that was invented over 120 years ago: moving around every four years, building a dozen stadiums and then throwing them away after two weeks. You can go to Rio and Athens and see the ruins of Olympics excess. The fundamental problem is infrastructure.
So, the Enhanced Games is going to focus on sports that really matter. I’m sorry, breakdancing, curling, and bobsled are not going to be in. It’s going to focus on the sports that people actually watch and have the biggest impact in terms of television and social media.
The core sports are divided into five categories: track and field, swimming, gymnastics, weight lifting, and combat sports. Those can all be done without specialist infrastructure, so we don’t need to build a velodrome, for example, which costs $100 million and gets thrown away in two weeks. Instead, the money will go to the athletes.
We’re also going to run our Games every year and go to the same cities over and over. We’re in venue negotiations right now and will be announcing host cities soon.
Do you plan to include triathlon?
Triathlon is not that expensive a sport to run. It does depend on our selection of host cities, do they have enough open water, etc? [But if they do] more likely than not, and I won’t commit to this publicly, we would look to include triathlon.
There is a triathlon almost every weekend here in London and a large community of people doing the event production all over the world. As long as there is an event production partner in our host city, we’d look to include triathlon.
Ultimately, what triathlon has done very well is that it is a remarkably participatory sport. Unlike swimming, where you have to get involved with your national federation, national Olympic committee, and jump through bureaucratic hoops, in triathlon, particularly Ironman, anyone can show up. All you need is a bicycle and a pair of shoes and you can participate.
Individuals then feel like they are part of the Ironman community; they go on the Ironman journey in this beautiful way and can be competing in an event in Melbourne or London and feel part of the wider community and be on track for qualification to Kona.
What is great about Ironman is that they go back to Kona every year and do that so beautifully, cheaply, and efficiently. Ironman is a for-profit corporation and has been very efficiently run as a result. You don’t see huge corruption scandals.
Sticking with that line or thought, and given triathletes have to go through their national federation for Olympic selection, would you prefer Ironman as a partner?
No athlete has ever said a good thing about their sport’s federation. No one is happy that there are these bureaucrats, detached from the day-to-day of the athlete, making the decisions.
Less so triathlon, which is highly objective, but look at gymnastics. It’s ripe for abuse because ultimately there is a large subjective element in being on the squad.
We don’t need them, they become useless bureaucracy that is a bad business model. Most federations don’t generate any income of their own and are just dependent on grant funding from the IOC.
By excluding the federations, we can have a much more direct relationship with the athletes—like Ironman does—and bring them into a community that supports our wider movement.
If you strip away the federations, rules and regulations are still required. For example, do you want the 100 fastest athletes in the world or the fastest athlete from each of 100 countries? Who sets the parameters for entry?
We’re recruiting an athletes’ advisory board so we can design the event operations to best suit the athletes in particular sports. Of course we need officialdom; referees and administrators who run the events, but I don’t think we need this ever-sprawling self-perpetuating, money-sucking, vampire of operations like these sports federations.
Ultimately, they control the cash cow and get paid first and no one else gets paid. Our model will be leaner, unbureaucratic, and apolitical, and make decisions efficiently like an athlete-led corporation.
When will we see the first Enhanced Games?
We’re presently looking at December 2024, after using the next year to become the official opposition movement to the Olympics.
We will be going to the Paris Olympics supporting athletes who have been accused of using performance enhancements and will organize lawyers to help their defense, while advocating for an alternative model. We can use that publicity in our media to drive the growth of our movement and ticket sales leading into our first event.
Our core sports can be run on a DI university campus. That necessarily means it has to happen out of term time. The first term break after Paris is in December, which necessitates somewhere warm, so California, Texas, and Florida are possible host locations for the first event.
There are also other countries, like Portugal, that are extremely supportive of enhancements. We might be looking toward a jurisdiction that is favorable from a political standpoint, however we don’t see any political risk in running in the U.S. Sports events like X Games or bodybuilding competitions do not have drug testing regimes, for example.
How are you funded?
Like any other Silicon Valley start-up. We raise equity capital. I have a two-decade background in start-up land and have built and sold three companies, so I’m self funding right now. We have term sheets [business agreements] from some of the biggest venture capital funds in the world and we’re going to raise tens of millions of dollars to put on the first event.
A lot of people say: ‘How can you put on a new Olympics? It will cost you billions of dollars.’ If you redesign the Games without wasted infrastructure it can be done so much cheaper and possibly profitably. We’ll be announcing our funding structure in the next few weeks.
The media attention we’ve gotten has been validating. There is one Reddit thread with 500 comments and the vast majority are extremely supportive. That’s a good indicator that consumers want to see this. They want to see world records getting broken and they want to see what human beings are capable of.
Look at Formula 1, an extraordinarily popular sport and combination of humanity and engineering, man and machine, and that exactly the same kind of ethos the Enhanced Games is bringing.
How much money have you put in yourself?
Single digit millions. I’ve spent 20 years building my brand and reputation, working in some of the most prominent organizations in the world and best-selling books have been written about me. I’m putting my name on the line here. No matter what the financial investment, it’s an investment of reputation.
I'm a businessman, but the real courageous individuals are Olympians like Roland Schoeman, a gold medal swimmer from South Africa, Christina Smith, a bobsledder from Canada, and Brett Fraser, a swimmer from the Cayman Islands. For them to commit to this project before we were public and knew what the reaction would be is a level of courage that I have never seen in my life. They were the ones who really inspired me.
How many athletes have signed up in support?
You can see all the athletes at enhancedgames.org [the website lists six athletes on the advisory board], but we also have scientists like Dr. George Church, who is a professor of genetics at Harvard, and Dr. Kyle Grant from NASA, really extraordinary clinical thinkers who are supporting this.
It’s impossible to keep up at the moment. I have had 11 new registrations on the website since we started talking. There is a Team GB Tokyo 2020 athlete and National Health Service doctor who reached out this morning and said: ‘I always wanted this.’ We can see it coming together beautifully. The message resonates. These athletes are sick and tired of these sports federations and they want to earn a living, and fundamentally deserve to be rewarded. Yes, it’s bold and controversial and some people won’t like it, but that’s always the case with disruption.
Think about Uber. [Founder] Travis Kalanick never drove a taxi cab. All the taxi cab owners and regulators didn’t like it, but it was better for consumers and better for drivers, and we are building something that’s much, much better for athletes, more interesting to watch, and a format designed for the modern world.
Our attention spans have gotten shorter and shorter and once every four years is a format that doesn’t work. It’s a dying market and the Olympics know their demographic is falling apart.
On our website we have a whole section about how to come out as enhanced. It’s a journey. It takes a lot of time for them to get comfortable, to make that jump. They fear they are going to be rejected by their teammates, sports federation and the IOC, and ultimately it takes an immense act of courage. It’s easier now as it’s a movement growing every day. We’re creating momentum.
If you’re going to allow athletes to take performance enhancing drugs with impunity, are health issues a concern?
Absolutely, and the Enhanced Games are safer than the Olympics. Because of the WADA code, the Olympics forces the use of enhancements underground.
The triathlon community is ripe with the use of enhancements. I listened to a podcast with Collin [Chartier]. He orders EPO online and injects himself, and doesn’t even really know what he is doing. That’s really unsafe. This is the fundamental problem. Competitive athletics demand taking whatever is necessary to achieve great success, and in the Olympics you have to do that underground without clinical supervision, which is fundamentally unsafe.
The argument—or Olympic ideal—is that you don’t take the drugs, don’t endanger your health, and play by the rules though…
But it’s clearly not [the case]. Look at Lance Armstrong. He passed 500 drug tests and everyone knew he was on EPO. Lance was able to do it for that long because he had his own doctors and could spend millions, but poor athletes like Collin Chartier are self-medicating, which is really unsafe.
In the Enhanced Games, we can do it out in the open, under clinical supervision, with scientific support where data can be shared and products improved, and it can all be safe.
You only need to look at the legalization of cannabis in the United States. Taking a black market product and making it regulated has made the environment much safer.
We are confident this will be a safer environment and one that will ultimately be good for humanity. It’s showing how medical science can improve the capabilities of human beings to make us stronger and younger and faster for longer. It is ultimately the route to anti-aging and the fountain of youth. It might sound like science fiction but we live in this era of technological and social change and this will be one of the great enablers.
But cannabis smokers are not trying to beat the person next to them by seeing who can get the highest. In a competitive environment, won’t the temptation be to push for performance at any cost, and it will become dangerously unhealthy?
Ultimately, athletes are adults with free and informed consent, and should be able to do what they want with their own bodies. My body my choice, your body your choice.
I don’t think any government or paternalistic sports federation should make that decision for individuals. We should make those decisions ourselves on our individual risk tolerances and thresholds.
Do you expect performance levels to be higher than we see in the Olympic Games?
If they are not better than what we see in the Olympics, it’ll be a shocking indictment on the Olympics.
I do think we’re going to obliterate the world records. We’ll see what human beings are capable of and it will be a watershed moment in the history of humanity—a new generation of superheroes.
Go to the cinema today. The most popular movies are superhero movies and this is literally what our movement is about, using science and the best of humanity and a dose of courage to see how great we can become.
The Olympics are about the past, Greek gods and the natural world. I don’t think that’s what consumers or athletes want anymore. I think we have a much better narrative to suit this modern, technologically-driven world.
In terms of combat sports, do you have concerns that if athletes become ever bigger and stronger and hit harder, brain injuries will become more prevalent?
Take a look at the most popular sport among young people today. Professional slap fighting, Dana White’s new Powerslap League. We won't be having that at our games, I think it’s pretty disgusting, but I also think the biggest risk to athletes is their mental health. The Enhanced Games will be much better for the mental health of athletes because it doesn’t have the pressure cooker environment. Most Olympians have one shot because it’s every four years. That's a bad recipe.
Secondly, they have no financial stability, which brings in other mental health issues.
By investing in a new business model and running the Games more frequently, I think we can have much better mental health outcomes for our athletes, with no greater risk of brain injuries.
Finally, are those visiting and registering on the website just curious or do they share your vision?
It's everything from media enquiries to athletes and scientists joining up. The response has been phenomenal and it's so validating. In building any movement, it's the first five, 10, 15 followers that are the hardest. We’ve about 20 named on our website and in six months time there will be several thousand formally involved and we can take on the Olympics.