Gene Genie


Jul 31st 2008
From The Economist print edition

What athletes may or may not do ought to be decided on

grounds of safety, not fairness.

ANOTHER Olympics, another doping debate. And this time it is

a fervent one, as recent advances in medical science have had the side-effect

of providing athletes with new ways of enhancing performance, and thus of

putting an even greater strain on people's ethical sensibilities.

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This is especially true of gene therapy. Replacing defective

genes holds out great promise for people suffering from diseases such as

muscular dystrophy and cancer. But administered to sprightly sportsmen, the

treatment may allow them to heave greater weights, swim faster and jump farther

(see article).

And that would be cheating, wouldn't it?

Two notions are advanced against doping in sport: safety and

fairness. The first makes sense, the second less so—particularly when it comes

to gene therapy. For instance, some people have innate genetic mutations which

give them exactly the same sort of edge. Eero Mantyranta, a Finn, was a double

Olympic champion in cross-country skiing. His body has a mutation that causes

it to produce far more of a hormone called EPO than a normal person would. This

hormone stimulates the production of red blood cells. A synthetic version of it

is the (banned) drug of choice for endurance athletes.

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Mr Mantyranta was allowed to compete because his advantage

was held to be a "natural" gift. Yet the question of what is natural is no less

vexed than that of what is fair. What is natural about electric muscle

stimulation? Or nibbling on nutrients that have been cooked up by chemists? Or

sprinting in special shoes made of springy carbon fibre? Statistically

speaking, today's athletes are unlikely to be any more naturally gifted than

their forebears, but records continue to fall. Nature is clearly getting a

boost from somewhere.

Given that so much unnatural tampering takes place, the onus

is surely on those who want to ban doping (genetic or otherwise) to prove that

it is unusually unfair. Some point out, for instance, that it would help big,

rich countries that have better access to the technology. But that already

happens: just compare the training facilities available to the minuscule

Solomon Islands squad alongside those of mighty Team America. In druggy sports

it may narrow the gap. One condition of greater freedom would be to enforce

transparency: athletes should disclose all the pills they take, just as they

register the other forms of equipment they use, so that others can catch up.

The gene genie is already out of the bottle

From this perspective, the sole concern when it comes to

enhancing athletic performance should be: is it safe for the athletes? Safety

is easier to measure than fairness: doctors and scientists adjudicate on such

matters all the time. If gene doping proves dangerous, it can be banned. But

even then, care should be exercised before a judgment is reached.

Many athletes seem perfectly willing to bear the risks of

long-term effects on their health as a result of their vocations. Aged Muhammad

Ali's trembling hands, for example, are a direct result of a condition

tellingly named dementia pugilistica. Sport has always been about sacrifice and

commitment. People do not admire Mr Mantyranta because he had the luck of the

genetic draw. They admire him for what he achieved with his luck. Why should

others be denied the chance to remedy that deficiency?

What do you think?