Battle in Print: The Age of the Uber-Athlete

Jon Entine, 29 September 2006

It is sport’s doomsday scenario: a new generation of performance-enhancing agents that can transform also-rans into gold medallists. Imagine athletes injecting artificial genes into their bodies giving them the sinewy muscles of a cougar or the endurance of an antelope. This is not just Hollywood science fiction. This is the new reality in sports, and it is calling into question cherished beliefs about what is ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural,’ fair and unfair, in the world of elite athletics.

‘Genetic doping could ‘end sport as we know it,’ says the International Olympic Committee’s World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) president Dick Pound. ‘We will look back on Ben Johnson with his Stanoloxol [steroid scandal in 1988 for which he was stripped of the 100-meter gold medal], and say that’s like an ancient rock painting in a cave compared to what we face now with genetic engineering.’

Most sports officials believe that genetic doping undermines the bedrock ethical principle of sport, fairness – and that it does so in a way that’s infinitely harder to regulate than traditional performance-enhancing drugs. These concerns run up against three realities. First, in elite track and field, cycling, power lifting and perhaps swimming, performance-enhancing drug use is already so widespread as to make a mockery of the ideal of the pure athlete. Second, in the coming age of the cyborg athlete, detection of genetic enhancement will be all but impossible. Third, the advent of genetic interventions raises ethical dilemmas for which there are no easy solutions.

A new wave of gene therapies makes the dilemma all the more prickly. Therapies, already proven on animals, can regulate energy metabolism, alter blood flow to the tissues, regenerate the body after cartilage damage, tears and fractures, modify pain perception, or even postpone sexual development to keep preadolescent females in their performance prime as gymnasts and figure skaters.

There is no double yellow line separating genetic therapy from genetic enhancement. Is it ethical, for example, for an athlete who has injured herself after super-aggressive training to use genetic therapy to repair her body – and gain an advantage over a competitor who was more judicious in her training program? What about athletes who use genetic technology to avoid a debilitating disease – and also realise a side benefit of improved performance? Should they be banned from competition?

Confined to international cycling and weightlifting only a few years ago, gene doping is spreading to winter sports, track and field, the US football and even World Cup soccer. FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, has become so alarmed about the surge in use of erythropoietin (EPO), a favourite among endurance athletes, that it now tests for it. Unlike classic drugs such as steroids, bioengineered substances are chemically identical to the body’s natural hormones, making detection difficult. These problems will increase exponentially in the next wave of genetic enhancement – the direct injection of DNA that can turn genes into energy factories or activate dormant muscles.

Like stem cell research, genetic engineering is an issue that stirs an immediate and powerful gut reaction. In recent years, biomedical researchers have made small but measurable strides in gene therapy, which involves injecting the body with artificial genes to help block diseases such as haemophilia and cystic fibrosis. Many look forward to an age when many diseases will have been wiped out and hospitals will be obsolete except to treat trauma. But such revolutions invariably result in collateral damage.

The genetics revolution has certainly changed how we view sports and the desire to challenge human performance limits. Since the dawn of the original Olympics in ancient Greece, it had been assumed that training and discipline were the heroic qualities most critical to athletic success. But recent research into population genetics and physiology has battered the myth that sports is a level playing field where athletes who work the hardest go on to glory. Humans are not equally endowed. The new axiom in sports is that choosing one’s parents is far more important than choosing a coach. The belief in the importance of the environment has been superseded by the reality that much of human nature, and certainly a great deal of the performance potential of elite athletes, is hard-wired.

For scientists who struggle to measure the real-world relationship of genetics to human behaviour, sports offers the possibility of quantifying differences. Consider the mystery surrounding the cross-country skiing exploits of Eero Mentyranta. For decades after the Finn won two gold medals in the 1964 Winter Games at Innsbrück, and seven medals over three Olympics, he was dogged by rumours of deceit. Mentyranta was not noted for his dedicated training habits, which prompted many of his competitors to accuse him of blood doping – adding red blood cells before the race to increase his oxygen and stamina, a not-uncommon practice of cheats of his era. The rumours that he had an advantage turned out to be true – he was tested and shown to have 15 per cent more blood cells than normal. But with no evidence of doping, it was only later, in 1993, that Finnish researchers were able to conclude that Mentyranta and his family carry a rare genetic mutation that produced the EPO hormone, and loaded his blood cells with 50 per cent more red cells than the average man’s. Certainly many elite athletes, especially those in the performance sports, are freaks of nature. But Mentyranta’s genetic advantage was huge and unique. His body was a natural energy factory. Unlike most people, he had no shutdown valve, so his red blood cell count continuously soared and his endurance never flagged. The extra cells bathed his labouring muscles in energy-producing oxygen, providing the boost to glide past competitors.

Mentyranta’s case may seem extreme, but only by degree: Many superstar athletes in highly competitive sports are outliers on the distribution of human possibility, the product of accumulating genetic mutations as rare as those that produce a 150-IQ chess champion or a violin-playing toddler. ‘Very many in sports physiology would like to believe that it is training, the environment, what you eat that plays the most important role,’ says Bengt Saltin, director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Centre. ‘But we argue based on the data that it is “in your genes” whether or not you are talented or whether you will become talented. The extent of the environment can always be discussed but it’s less than 20, 25 percent.’ ‘You can’t change human nature’ may be one of the wisest of adages, but today, even a merely good athlete can be turned into a superstar by engineering ‘genetic defects’ – creating future Eero Mentyrantas. We are confronted with the reality that we can harness random acts of nature. Athletes often are willing guinea pigs, willing to gamble their health and maybe even their lives for the glory of victory. The genetic revolution will doubtless prove irresistible. And why not? From ageing offensive linemen to Kenyan-chasing distance runners, athletes will know that their prospects will be brighter with an injection from the right DNA-filled test tube.

A laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania offers a peek at what that the future cyborg athlete might look like. There, running tireless circles on a wheel inside a cage, is He-Man. A few years ago, physiologist H Lee Sweeney injected a tiny white mouse with a synthetic version of a gene called Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1), a protein that makes muscles grow and repair themselves. He-Man clings stubbornly to the cage bars. ‘He’s just showing off,’ jokes Sweeney, who is only partly kidding. The IGF-1 boosted He-Man’s muscle mass by more than 60 per cent. This rodent is ripped. He can climb a ladder carrying three times his body weight. The rodent-athletes in a similar experiment conducted at London’s Royal Free hospital and University College London’s medical school, ballooned to four times their natural muscle mass but weigh only 30 per cent more. And all this with no exercise and no detectable health problems.

‘We call them the Schwarzenegger mice,’ says Harvard geneticist Nadia Rosenthal, who teamed with Sweeney. ‘I’d be totally surprised if it was not going on in sports. Those with terminal cancer and AIDs want to know “What will keep me alive?” Athletes want to know “What will help me win?”’ Genetic engineering will no doubt result not just in outsized performances but outsized risks. Endurance-boosting drugs like EPO cause the blood to thicken, which has led to the death of more than 20 cyclists. Human growth hormone, which is widely used by strength athletes and some sprinters, can result in acromegaly – enlarged organs and uncontrollable bone growth in the face, feet and hands. It’s crippling, irreversible, and a killer.

Should athletes be allowed to use genetic techniques to improve performance? Olympic authorities take a hard line. According to International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, ‘Genetic manipulation is there to treat people who have ailments, not to treat a healthy person. I am very clear on this’. But the issue of genetic performance enhancement is not so black and white. First, there’s the question of what is ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ – and why those graced at birth by a lucky throw of the genetic dice should have a life-long advantage of not having to face equal genetic competition. Many newly developed drugs are identical to natural chemicals made by the body. What should be considered ‘normal’ levels of such naturally occurring hormones? Because many great athletes are in effect an accumulation of favourable (for that sport) genetic mutations, at what point do we disallow certain athletes as being too far from the ‘genetic mainstream’? Should we deny the children of Eero Mentyranta the chance to pursue their Olympic dreams because they have a huge advantage that is ‘natural’ but no less decisive than an athlete who takes a synthesized version of natural EPO?

The most powerful argument for allowing genetic interventions is that there is a hazy line between ‘health restoration’ and ‘performance enhancement’. Genetic enhancement offers promising health benefits – as do any number of treatments that are the result of medical breakthroughs. Imagine an athlete using gene modification to overcome congenital asthma or another genetic abnormality. What about aiding someone who is destined to be short, say below 5 feet? Should they be disallowed from playing competitive sports if genetic manipulation will allow them to lead richer lives by making them 5 feet 10 inches? How about 6 feet 10 inches? Should people be punished because the roulette wheel of genetics did not land on their number? Whether we like it or not, many world-class athletes in the future will have ‘had their genes done’ the way they now get their knees scoped – and no one will know. What can or should we do about that?

There are no easy answers. The debate over genetic engineering is just beginning. The Pandora’s box is open. There are cyborg humans amongst us.

Jon Entine is a columnist, Ethical Corporation Magazine and Adjunct Fellow, American Enterprise Institute, Washington DC


The coming of the über-athlete, John Entine, Salon, 21 May 2002

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