The Conundrum of Genetic Enhancement in Sports

We’re bearing down on an important crossroads in history.  Humankind has now advanced to
the brink of being able to influence the further evolution of the species.  With the mapping of the
human genome and development of techniques for altering our own DNA, whether by gene
therapy during a person’s lifetime or genetic manipulation before conception, scenarios that
were once the stuff of science fiction are now being covered in scientific journals and
mainstream media.  Reports of regular lab mice being transformed into super-muscular
specimens through gene therapy, debilitating diseases in humans being treated with similar
gene therapy techniques, fertility clinics offering parents the opportunity to preselect the gender
of their children, the identification in a German family of a naturally-occurring mutation that
facilitates muscle development, and a pet lover willing to shell out $50,000 for the promise of
bringing back a clone of a dearly deceased kitty─however disconnected they may seem─are
actually road signs directing us toward a common destination: human genetic enhancement.

The legal and ethical implications of genetic research are staggering in scope and frightening in
import.  Should scientists be allowed to destroy human embryos in order to conduct stem cell
research that could prolong and improve countless lives?  Are clones simply identical twins of
different ages, or something more troubling?  Is there a clear line of demarcation between
genetic manipulation for therapeutic purposes and genetic manipulation for enhancement?  
Should genetically enhanced children be allowed to compete against non-enhanced humans in
the college admissions process and in athletics?  Is there ever a justification for transmutation of
animal and human DNA, and how much human DNA would it take to qualify an animal as human
(or vice versa)?  The list goes on and on, and the opportunity for a rational and proactive
debate is passing us by.

While these ethical issues permeate virtually all aspects of our society, the world of athletics is
likely to be the first battleground where they'll be confronted.  The recent BALCO scandal, in
which a number of high profile baseball players and track athletes were charged with using a
synthetic steroid known as "the clear" that allowed them to evade drug tests, underscores the
willingness of professional athletes to risk their health and professional reputations for the
possibility of stardom.  And this is just the tip of the technological iceberg.  What lies just
beneath the surface is a threat known as gene doping.

Gene doping is the sports parlance for use of gene therapy techniques (
e.g., introduction of
foreign DNA into a mature human being using a retrovirus) to enhance a person’s DNA.  While
gene therapy is still considered dangerous and experimental in humans, it has been used
successfully in lab animals, most notably in the broadly reported experiment that transformed
regular rodents into mighty mice with 50% increases in strength and endurance.  Articles in
respectable publications like
Scientific American have recently speculated that the techniques
used in these animal experiments could be replicated in humans.  Judging by the prevalence of
steroid abuse in the past decades, it takes little imagination to foresee a thriving black market for
gene therapy among athletes.

The World Anti-Doping Agency is taking this threat very seriously.  It has already amended the
Anti-Doping Code to outlaw gene doping and has been working with the scientific community to
design tests that could be used to detect this new form of cheating.  While these steps are
laudable, there is reason to be concerned that the definition of gene doping in the Anti-Doping
Code may go too far.  Most everyone would agree that alteration of DNA during one’s lifetime for
the purpose of improving athletic performance is tantamount to steroid use and should be
banned.  But what about beneficial genetic changes made before conception and without any
specific intent of improving athletic performance?  Under the current wording of the Anti-Doping
Code, such genetic manipulation could become grounds for disqualification of unwittingly-
enhanced athletes.

While the threat of genetic enhancement in sports may seem sufficiently remote to avoid
worrying about today, the future has a way of sneaking up on us, and the legal and ethical battle
lines are already forming.  Those who favor banning any enhanced athletes would argue that it’s
unfair to “natural” athletes, and that technologically advanced nations would be able to engineer
superhuman teams that other countries couldn’t match.  But those on the other side of the aisle
would argue that professional sports are already foreclosed to the vast majority of humans who
weren’t born with the right genes and that technological advances in training and equipment
already accrue to wealthy countries like the U.S.  And what about the broader societal
implications of banning enhanced humans from athletics?  This might prove to be a first step
down the slippery slope of societal discrimination against a future class of citizens.  So we must
resist the impulse to reach hasty conclusions on these weighty matters and instead open an
honest debate on the subject.

What we decide might determine the future evolution of our species.

Links of Interest:

Scientific American:Gene Doping [GENETIC ENGINEERING]

Science News: Gene Doping

Betterhumans: The First Genetically Modified Olympics

Genetically Modified Athletes

Gene Doping: Introductory Notes

Is Genetic Engineering Next Doping Threat?

Olympics Doping
Copyright © 2008 Kevin Joseph.  All rights reserved.