Why I...believe genetic modification could be good for sport and society

August 13, 2004

Andy Miah Lecturer in media, bioethics and cyberculture Paisley University

The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Athens takes place under a cloud of controversy - not because people are questioning the city's ability to hold the Games but because of a new crisis in the world of anti-doping: genetically modified athletes.

In the past year, the World Anti-Doping Agency has battled with scandal after scandal. Gene doping, as it is known, compromises the success of the WADA project considerably. The reaction to GM athletes has been rapid. Just this year, WADA included a prohibition of gene doping in the anti-doping code.

Yet what might intuitively seem a straightforward ban on another form of "cheating" hides a more complex problem that has not been addressed. Two years ago the US President's Council on Bioethics met to discuss genetic enhancement in sport, during which it recognised that sports authorities might not be best placed to rule on GM athletes. Its debates acknowledged the broader context of gene doping and questioned whether the practice would actually be bad for sport.

Academics are in the thick of this debate. One view is that genetic modification could yield far safer enhancements than current synthetic drugs. Moreover, gene doping might actually be impossible to detect.

Many scientists have recognised that the only way it might be possible to find out whether somebody has gene doped would be to conduct a muscle biopsy. But few ethical committees or, indeed, athletes, will be happy to endorse such a request just for the sake of some contested notion of "fair play".

In fact, gene doping might promote fair play. Currently, athletes are genetically diverse, which is an irrelevant inequality in sport. It would be far better - and in the spirit of sport - to use genetic modification to eliminate genetic difference between athletes or, at least, allow all athletes to use it in a way that is most useful to them.

The medical and scientific response to such proposals reflects the standard response to any form of genetic enhancement: we do not yet know if it is safe, so it is unethical (and illegal) to make such alterations. But this should not be the end of the debate. Gene doping is a good example of the kind of ethical discussions triggered by technological developments.

The press coverage that has plagued the "new genetics" and concern about drug use in sport have prejudiced the evaluation of gene doping. The public perception of human cloning has taken a similar turn. Gene doping would not create superhumans but could help to overcome the considerable harm caused by current forms of doping in sport.

There are many serious ethical issues arising from the non-therapeutic application of genetics that demand our attention. For example, what would be the appropriate use of genetic information to "select" the next generation of elite athletes?

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority's recent decision to permit the selection of an embryo to save the life of a sibling alerts us to the complexity and profundity of these matters. But the language used to describe these "designer" or "spare-part" babies has made the public less likely to accept such decisions. The case of the Frankenstein runner is comparable.

Governments must recognise why decisions on this technology should not simply be left to the world of sport. The fair-play argument might be a sport-related one, but if genetic modification is legalised and used in medicine, then surely it would be unreasonable to prohibit GM athletes from sport and mistaken to call them "cheats".

Andy Miah is author of Genetically Modified Athletes (Routledge). He gave a paper on gene doping at the Pre-Olympic Congress in Greece this week.

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