Why I ... believe genetically engineered athletes might not be cheats

June 1, 2001

Next week, the International Olympic Committee's Medical Commission will hold a meeting to discuss genetic enhancement in elite sport, an issue that shows how biotechnology is creating ethical dilemmas for a whole range of activities.

The IOC is endeavouring to get ahead of the game after 40 years of lagging behind drug users, who constantly sidestep the latest tests. But the genetics issue could put the IOC in an even more difficult position.

Some of today's athletes already have an advantage, given that their genotype is better suited to the sport at which they excel. One could therefore ask why engineering such a difference should be considered problematic.

But the problem is highly complex. In a case where an athlete has used genetic engineering to augment his or her body's stem cells, sports officials could adopt the same position they hold on performance-enhancing drugs. But arguments relating to the long-term physical damage caused by some such drugs cease to be applicable if genetic engineering is conducted legally and safely.

And what about an individual genetically enhanced before birth? It would seem unreasonable to brand someone as a cheat when they have done nothing themselves to gain an advantage. It remains to be seen whether such an advantage is deemed unfair - and that is the critical issue.

So what should be done? The consensus among sports officials is that genetic engineering - which may not only enhance performance but also reduce recovery times - should be stopped. But legislation regarding the use of this technology in sport needs to take account of the broader bioethical issues that are likely to precede it.

Sports authorities should not take a hasty policy decision that merely pays lip service to ethics. They need to undertake a thorough ethical inquiry that encompasses both sports and medical issues.

Our uncertainty about how to deal with genetic engineering is the main hurdle to progress. The development of bioethics as an academic discipline reflects these doubts and the inadequacy of traditional medical ethics to deal with genetic engineering.

Moreover, it may not be up to just sports bioethical committees to decide whether a genetically engineered athlete is cheating. For instance, Unesco's Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights says that it is unacceptable to disadvantage someone on account of his or her genotype. This might include banning individuals from competition.

The importance accorded to ethics in the IOC's discussions will therefore be critical to successful policy-making that is justifiable and devoid of prejudice about genetic technologies. To give in to popular feeling about genetic engineering and condemn its use would significantly undermine the value that such technology might have for society and, potentially, for sport.

Andy Miah
Doctoral student in the philosophy of sport
Forum for the Analysis of Sport Technology
De Montfort University

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