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Catching up with Frankenrunner

The World Anti-Doping Agency's concerns about GM athletes raise new questions about the drugs regime in sports.

Andy Miah

Topics Politics

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The possibility of genetically modified (GM) athletes was top of the agenda of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the authority on drug use in sport, at its New York conference in mid-March 2002.

While genetics is not yet at a stage where these technologies could be used to enhance the performance of elite sports performers, WADA is becoming concerned that it might not be long before athletes turn to genetics to gain an edge in their performance. A variety of techniques might be used to apply genetics to sport and create GM athletes. These possibilities range from the actual manipulation of an athlete’s genes, to the straightforward use of genetic information to try and predict which will be the most successful athletes.

WADA’s concerns prioritised the possibility of genetic enhancement. In the short term, there is a fear that knowledge in the science of genomics could provide drug-like enhancements. This entails the design and creation of drugs on the basis of genetic science. Genomics can allow the creation of more effective and efficient drugs, perhaps with less possibility of undesirable side-effects and less risk to long-term health. For this reason, drugs produced as a consequence of genomics would be highly desirable for athletes and, perhaps, less alarming for sports authorities – if it were not for the concern about fair play.

In relation to the actual manipulation of an athlete’s genes – the creation of so-called GM athletes – two clear kinds of manipulation could be possible. The first is the alteration of somatic-cells, those cells which are not passed down from one generation to the next. Currently, research is taking place to isolate performance genes and to create genetic versions of, for example, erythropoietin (epo), the endurance-enhancing drug that became internationally known in 1998 at the Tour de France, where the culture of doping in cycling was revealed.

It may also be possible to alter the germ-line cells of an athlete, which is argued by some to raise far more ethical issues because of the potential for detrimental affects on the gene pool. Changes of this kind could take place by intervening with life very early in its conception and introducing genetic changes. If done early enough, this could lead to a change in the genetics structure without any serious long-term harm, which might render a greater disposition for sporting performances.

These possibilities remain highly speculative, as gene-therapy is regarded by some scientists as a very limited technology. However, even if research is not explicitly for sport, the removal of some genetic dysfunction could be regarded as a route towards performance enhancement.

But how realistic is the ‘Frankenrunner’ scenario, which so grips the media imagination? If one accepts the prediction of WADA President, Dick Pound, then within five years elite sport could be riddled with new, performance-enhancing techniques that are based upon genetic technology. Research is currently taking place in various countries around the world to find ways of understanding the genetic basis of sports performance, knowledge of which can lead substantially to developing techniques for enhancement.

One of the major fears about these applications in sport is that they will take place behind closed doors. As has happened within sport for many years, the methods of doping used by athletes have been far ahead of the testing measures used by authorities to catch the users. WADA’s interest in ensuring that this does not happen in the case of genetic alterations is to its credit.

The case against genetic enhancement in sport is perhaps an easier position to formulate than the case for the use of such technology. The recent press coverage of British Gold medal winning skier, Alain Baxter, is some indication of how sports authorities feel about drug users in sport. Also, the past few years have been replete with stories about athletes who have been found with some banned substance in their bodies. For this reason, the case against genetic modifications – already being labelled as another method of doping – is pretty persuasive.

There seems to be a consensus that drug use, and other methods of doping in sport, are wrong and that this is related to fair play, the potential for harm; or that there is something about drugs that just does not fit with what sport is supposed to be about.

However, the basis on which these athletes are considered cheats often lacks substance, and it is not clear whose benefits are served by the complete rejection of doping in sport, least of all the interest in fair play. Many arguments can be found against the defences upon which anti-doping is premised. These include ideas that sport is inherently contra-health, or that fairness in sport is a myth and the rejection of drugs is the prioritising of one version of fairness over another.

It does not seem fair that some countries have such greater opportunities to provide the best training facilities for their athletes than others. Neither does it seem fair that athletes are subjected to invasive drug tests or the persecution that ensues as a result of a positive test. And it does not seem fair to ban performance-enhancing substances, where no scientific evidence has been provided to show, conclusively, that some enhancement is gained.

Moving on to genetics, one could argue that it is not fair that some athletes have a better genetic pre-disposition than others (as is the situation without genetic modification). From one perspective, genetic modification might actually provide a greater levelling of the playing field or, at most, might simply entail a shifting in fortune for those of varying genetic pre-dispositions. As well, where some persons are born as a result of some genetic modification that has not been for the purposes of elite competition, but which might be of some performance benefit, it would seem unfair to disqualify a person for having such a condition.

The discussion about ‘GM athletes’ arguably raises the most pertinent questions in relation to the drugs regime in sport. It is only recently that the various anti-doping agencies in sport have begun to consider harmonising their efforts – reflected in the system by which drugs and other methods are deemed illegal or not. One of the most severe criticisms of the anti-doping approach is that it continues to isolate the athlete as being most culpable in the situation when they are simply one group of actors among many. Indeed, the ‘culture of doping’ that is prevalent throughout professional sport must be seen precisely in this way – as a culture comprising many different elements with varying culpability.

In the case of genetics, it will be important not to adopt an ‘anti’ stance, which places WADA in a rather difficult position. To apply sporting values in a context where wider ethical issues must be discussed – ie, the place of genetics in society generally – is simply not feasible. The World Anti-Doping Agency will have to be prepared to accept that some, if not all, forms of genetically modified athlete are as legitimate as their competitors.

Andy Miah is a lecturer in media and bioethics at the University of Paisley. He is co-editor with Simon Easssom at De Montfort University, of Sport Technology: History, Philosophy, and Policy, due for publication by Elsevier Science in 2002, and author of numerous articles about genetic modification in sport. He is also an Executive Council member of the Forum for the Analysis of Sport Technology.

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Topics Politics

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