August 23, 2004
Genetically Enhanced Athletes In 2008 Olympics?

Some athletes may already be experimenting with gene therapy to enhance their performance.

"I wouldn't be surprised if somebody (in sports) is trying it as we speak," University of Western Ontario genetics expert Dr. Shiva Singh said. "If you can do it for a diseased muscle, why can't you do it for a normal muscle?"

Many of the therapies developed for muscular dystrophy, muscle injuries, aged muscles, and other muscle disorders will be easily adapted to enhance performance well beyond the natural level of performance. So banning the development of genetic enhancement therapies is not feasible.

Anne McIlroy of the Globe and Mail has an excellent overview of the developments that are leading toward the genetic enhancement of athletic performance. She reports that genetically enhanced athlets may show up at the 2008 Summer Olympics to compete.

Many experts believe that the first genetically modified athletes could be competing at next Summer Olympics.

"I would think the Beijing Olympics may be the time to pick it up on a widespread basis," says Geoffrey Goldspink, an expert in muscle regeneration at the University College Medical School in London. He is already working on a test to detect genetic cheaters for the U.S. anti-doping agency.


In 1964, Finnish cross-country skier Eero Mantyranta was suspected of blood doping after winning two gold medals because he had so many red blood cells in his system. Three decades later, he was cleared when researchers found that he and many of his family members have a genetic mutation that increases their red-blood-cell count by 20 per cent.

Eventually the World Anti-Doping Agency will have to face what to do about children genetically engineered to be faster, stronger, and more coordinated from birth. Take the mutation carried by someone like Eero Mantyranta (or the myostatin gene mutation that has produced a super-muscular baby in Germany) and imagine couples who decide to have children and choose to incorporate a mutation like Mantyranta's mutation in their offspring. The kids will never have been given the chance to turn down their performance enhancing genotypes. They may even have only naturally occurring enhancements - just not ones their own parents possess. Lots of performance-enhancing genetic variations are naturally occurring. We let people who by chance naturally get great genetic variations from their parents to compete at the Olympic level. Should people be banned from Olympic sports because their parents gave their kids the same exact variations using genetic manipulations of sperm or eggs or freshly fertilized embryos? If so, why?

Andy Miah argues that genetic enhancement ought to be allowed but genetically enhanced athletes ought to compete in separate categories.

Gene therapies hold so much promise for helping humanity, Dr. Miah says, that he has urged the WADA not to treat them simply as a new form of illegal doping. For example, gene therapy potentially could be used to repair the injured muscles of athletes. Would that use also be illegal? "It's that kind of boundary that's unclear from the present rulings," he says. By making genetic modification illegal, athletes may seek out "rogue scientists," he says. "If we do prohibit it, we push it underground, and we don't know what athletes are doing. They don't know what they're doing." If we regulate instead, "we can try to make sure they're doing it in a safe manner," he says.

Miah points to paralympics competitions where people with different kinds of disabilities compete in different classes. But there is an more striking way in which athletes have been put into different classes based on innate abilities: the division of athletes by sexes. Men have an innate advantage in musculature and even in the strength of some connective parts (e.g. the weaker Anterior Cruciate Ligament in women makes the frequency of ACL injuries much higher in women than in men). Most people (aside from some feminists) accept it as normal that men and women compete in separate groups in most sports. Why shouldn't we take the same approach with genetically modified athletes?

Shannon Klie has an excellent Better Humans article that reviews a number of the recent discoveries of genetic variations which enhance musculature and performance. Klie quotes the argument of USCD cancer research and WADA board member Theodore Friedmann, MD that sports is threatened by a loss in the belief of spectators that the contests are a measure of innate abilities and developed skills.

But while Friedmann thinks that it's inevitable that genetic therapies will be incorporated into international sports, he worries about their effect on the nature of sport. He says that instead of a feat of athleticism being the result of skill, training and dedication, in the future people will wonder if it's a simple product of bioengineering. "It's a threat to sport as we know it," he says.

But I think Friedmann is overlooking two obvious points:

  • As we learn more about existing genetic variations that show just how much individuals differ in their genetic potential the public will come to realize just how much of superior athleticism is due to factors that the athletes have no control over: their own genetic endowment. We will be seen as innately very unequal from each other in physical abilities for genetic reasons that do not reflect on our drive or personal conscious choices. Once DNA sequencing becomes cheap sports announcers will compare competitors in terms of their genetic advantages and disadvantages.
  • Tens or hundreds of millions of people already enjoy watching sports that have a very large element of engineering team competition as part of the total competition. The engineering competitions range across sports and encompass designs of shoes, bicycles, race cars, race boats, sail boats, and countless other items used in a variety of sports.

Once it becomes safe and easy to do genetic enhancement a large fraction of the population will choose to genetically engineer their bodies to improve their looks, strength, resistance to infections, and a great many other qualities. To keep genetic engineering out of professional sports will then require some small fraction of the human population to keep itself in "wild type" state so that "natural" sports can continue to be practiced. My guess is that most potential athletes will decide that is a sacrifice that is too large to be worth it. If existing sports organizations keep their bans on genetic enhancement in effect then new sporting organizations will be formed to hold competitions between the genetically enhanced and the crowds will shift their interests toward the competitions between genetically enhanced athlets. WADA is a reactionary organization in an ultimately futile fight for a type of sports that will eventually be seen as anachronistic.

What is the psychological basis of the opposition to genetic enhancement of athletic performance? Is genetic enhancement seen as a threat to athletics as a sort of folk religion aimed at the worship of what humans can accomplish if they will their selves to power with strong free wills? Or is genetic enhancement more threatening because it is perceived as reducing the role for chance in determining outcomes? Or is it born more from a desire to see human bodies and not machines as the height of human accomplishment? What do you see as threatened by genetic enhancement?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 August 23 12:00 AM  Biotech Athletics

Joe said at August 23, 2004 1:07 AM:

I'm sure this is a gross oversimplification, but my gut response is that much of the negative opinion regarding genetic enhancement of athletic performance comes from fans associating themselves with the athletes. Most of the big fans I know identify very strongly with particular teams, or country in the case of the Olympics. It's very much a case of their own familiar views against a foreign other. They look at the game and see themselves as an extension of the teams. Genetic alteration in this case is the ultimate violation of this. Not only is the socioeconomic distinction made more obvious, they're suddenly less similar on a genetic level to the observer. And even worse than that, suddenly having the unmodified people, such as they are, in a special underperforming category might be harsh on the ego of someone who experiences victory vicariously through watching sports. If someone's athletic hero can't compete with a genetically modified person after years of intensive training, what does that say about himself who hasn't even had that.

Randall Parker said at August 23, 2004 1:42 AM:


Interesting theory. It sounds plausible initially. But if your theory is correct then as genetic sequencing advances and we find that the super-athletes are very different from us genetically for the variations that determine potential performance then that gap between us and them is going to seem wider to the public in coming years even without genetic engineering. But genetic engineering will allow even average people to modify themselves to be more like their athletic heroes.

However, I think we can see the future right now in Pro Baseball and I do not see signs that your theory is working in practice. Pro Baseball is basically not enforcing all the anti-doping rules. So hitters suddenly became all bulked up and certain ones experienced big increases in their rates of hitting home runs. Well, has this reduced fan support for baseball? Maybe it has. I don't follow baseball and so I can't say. But I haven't read that this is the case when I'm trolling for articles about sports and biological enhancement.

Fly said at August 23, 2004 10:50 AM:

Iím not a sports fan and donít know how fans will react to biotech enhancement.

I have played beach volleyball at a fairly competitive level. Iíd love to be able to play at that level again. Oh to regain the animal pleasure of moving and jumping and spiking. No sore back or knees or shoulders. Sigh. So bring on the biotech enhancement.

My concern with opening sports to biotech enhancement is that the desire to win may encourage many people to take extreme risks. What if winning meant you would likely die before thirty? To a teen that might seem a good trade. I expect biotech enhancement will cause some deaths.

I donít believe the government should act as a nanny. People are responsible for their own choices. And I believe that biotech enhancement will occur whether it is prohibited or not. Outlawing enhancement would only increase the health dangers, as the enterprise would be driven underground.

clay said at August 24, 2004 1:47 AM:

I worry about losing individuality. But maybe it will be like a strategy game in which choosing certain enhancements will have applications suited for some situations while making them a disadvantage in others.

GreyHawk said at August 28, 2004 11:19 PM:

I Totally agree with Andy Miah, who says that gene thearpy will promote fairness instead of unfairness. In my school the greatest athlete whose photo is about everywhere is nothing but a pothead who smokes drinks and F's girls every night literally. I know this because he used to be one of my best friends and still is one of my good friends as of now. I still workout with him sometimes at the gym, and he doesn't even lift at all he'll be talking to me about his many girlfriends while benchpressing or squating. Lots of time he'll stop in the middle of a set to look at some girl's ass, he'll do stupid stuff like tickle me while I'm lifting. When I go to work in the afternoons lots of times I'll pass by his house and see him drunk or stoned. we've known him since the 4th grade and he started smokin pot at the end of 6th grade. At 1st we were retarted and thought that drinking and smokin would enhance athletic performance, since he's the only one who did those in our middle school that time and he smoked everyone at every sport without even trying. And it's still like that to this day. We've always wondered why why why? was he so athletic when he didn't even try. Then when we learned about how genetics and heredity affected our future we looked at his parents and his parent's history and finally understood why. We looked at our parents they are nothing but coach potatoes, no history in sports only history in sitting in front of the sofa eating potatoe chips and admiring athletes. O.K. now this article is kinda long but I'll post the other half of the story later. But the point is some people have a great big gentic advantage over us naturally and that ain't fair, but with gene therapy is all the athletes has the same genes the one who works the hardest the one with the greatest desires will win, not the one whose blessed with good genes. Lots of people have much greater desires for the gold and works a lot harder than the people getting gold medals in Athens, but they just have poor gentics, and that is not fair, the person who deserves the gold should be the one making the most sacrifices, the one with the greatest desire, and the one who works the hardest, not the ones that are blessed with good gentics. Thank All of you guys who read my Article.

Patrick said at August 30, 2004 1:26 AM:

A fascinating parallel comes to us from the 19th Century Britain, when training for a sporting event was considered against the rules.

This was not just a matter of lazy social pretense, it was a serious matter of law. For example in duelling it was perfectly legal to pick a fight with someone, go out together to a park somewhere, and shoot him dead. BUT if it was found that you were practising with your pistol before hand, this was elevated from an amusing social habit to a capital crime and you would be hanged.

Clearly this prejudice against someone enhancing their natural abilities has completely disappeared from our society. When reading an 1830s account of an Englishman (Capt. Marryatt, British war hero and author) who was disgusted with the American duelling practices, it took a while to work out what the hell he was on about. I naturally assumed he was revolted by the same thing I was, that respectable men were killing eachother, and it took a while for me to get my head around the fact that it was the way the Americans practised that was the problem.

(This brings up the totally unrelated issue, that Napoleonic Europeans, or even Victorians, would have much less problem understanding the Islamic fundamentalist than we do. As far as my reading of history is concerned, Civilization developed sometime after World War 1. Everyone before that was a complete bloodthirsty maniac by today's western standards.)

Roland said at January 20, 2006 2:32 AM:

Having two seperate categories is a good idea. You can't open the olympics completely to genetic engineering for the same reason you can't open it to performance-enhancing drugs: it becomes a competition for the best scientists rather than the best athletes. I know it's already like that with sporting equipment, but the person using the equipment is still a "natural human", and that's what the competition is about.

Having two categories, or a seperate version of the olympics, solves the problem. In a few decades, record-breaking will be gone from the unenhanced competitions, but the feats of the unenhanced competitors will seem even more amazing to the enhanced general public. But people will also enjoy watching the performance of genetically-modified athletes, cyborg athletes or athletes with respirocytes (super-efficient artificial blood cells).

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