Uphill race for GM sprinters?

Genetically Modified Athletes
August 5, 2005

Ethical tensions within sport have a long and contentious history. The Corinthian ideal of sport as embodying notions of fair play is very much an isolated example within the pantheon of modern sport and is at odds with the prevailing ethos. The Football Association Premier League is a great example of these ethical tensions as played out on a weekly basis, be it in terms of a player rolling theatrically on the pitch to simulate being fouled in order to gain an advantage (witness Roy Keane's recent proposal, only half in jest, to wear wristbands in support of a campaign to outlaw diving) or whether a goalkeeper should admit that a ball has indeed crossed the goal line (the recent furore over "the goal that never was" at Old Trafford in the match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur is a prime example).

Such cases challenge our idea of what is understood by sportsmanship, and whether such ethical considerations have any place within a modern sports landscape so tied in to commercial interests, and perhaps less in thrall to traditional sporting ideals.

Andy Miah's book taps into a different but related issue of fairness within sport and the implications that genetic modification might have on it. At the same time, the book helps to articulate an understanding of human genetics more generally and considers what it means to be human.

The area evidently has parallels, or perhaps antecedents, in the drugs and sport debate, concerned as that is with enhancing performance, particularly at elite level. However, Miah goes beyond this to examine the implications of "gene doping". It does this within a framework of the well-established area of ethics and sport. Miah's book examines issues that not long ago would have been seen as the stuff of science fiction and illustrates an excellent grasp of the author's specific field of bioethics and sport, and of the broader ethics and sport debate.

The book is divided into four parts. The first deals with the issue of performance enhancement and taps into the wider literature of drugs and sport. The second part comprises two chapters on conceptualising genetics within sport. One of them looks at what types of developments this might entail for the GM athlete; the second considers some responses to the issue of GM in sport. The exhortation of one biologist that he "wishes genetics had never been invented" recalls Einstein's horror at the bastardisation of his work with the Manhattan Project and the impossibility of "un-invention".

The four chapters in part three consider "ethical status", covering issues such as "humanness" and unfair advantage. Part of this involves distinguishing between different rationales for such medical developments and the ramifications of social engineering. The final part consists of three chapters looking at some of the implications and conclusions drawn out by the book. In particular, it considers some of the legal and practical difficulties of attempting to regulate GM athletes. Indeed, Miah proposes one way out of the impasse: a modern handicapping system in which enhanced athletes could be accommodated by playing fields whose gradients vary to reflect the amount of artificial aid an individual has received.

Miah's book is a thought-provoking read that raises important questions about sport and society. It is a truly boundary-crossing piece of work, one within which students and scholars in a number of disciplines, from sociology and law to sports studies, will find much material to mine.

Guy Osborn is senior lecturer in law, Westminster University.

Genetically Modified Athletes

Author - Andy Miah
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 208
Price - £70.00 and £24.99
ISBN - 0 415 29879 2 and 29880 6

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