My attention was taken by this piece from The Weekend Australian (not available online as far as I can see):
The world may be about to watch one of its last Olympic Games without genetically enhanced athletes. With the first genetic treatments to regenerate muscle, enhance its strength and protect it from degradation about to enter human clinical trials. The Scientific American examined the prospect for misuse by athletes. H. Lee Sweeney wrote that the new treatments were being developed to help people with muscular dystrophy and the aged. “Unfortunately, it is also a dream come true for an athlete bent on doping.”
The chemicals used for gene therapy are indistinguishable from their natural counterparts and are only generated locally in the muscle tissue, leaving no trace to be detected in blood or urine tests. The World Anti-Doping Agency has asked scientists to help find ways to prevent gene therapy becoming the newest form of doping but Sweeney is pessimistic, suggesting that preventing athletes from gaining access may become impossible as use becomes more widespread. He wrote that in addition to overall muscle enlargement, gene doping could be used to tweak genes to convert muscle fibres to the fast type for sprinters and to those with greater endurance for marathon runners.
The technology necessary to enable athletes to abuse the gene transfer process is still not within reach of the average athlete, but it is feared that just as technically skilled individuals turned to the production of designer steroids, a market in genetic enhancement may soon emerge. But before that happens, Sweeney wrote, the world still had the opportunity to anticipate the consequences.
The broader implications of genetic engineering were dealt with at length by Michael Sandel in a long article in The Atlantic back in April. But even just confining ourselves to sport, the implications are intriguing and maybe depressing. If we can’t stop drug/genetic engineering cheating, should we simply give up trying? That way all elite athletes would be on a “level playing field”, because we could safely assume that they were all taking the fullest possible advantage of every conceivable drug or genetic engineering advance.
There are, of course, some pretty thorny ethical issues here. Long-term heavy steroid use, for instance can lead to so-called ‘roid rage, shrunken testicles and decreased fertility. But if adults in full possession of all relevant information want to turn themselves into eunuchs in the pursuit of winning, maybe that should be their choice. Sporting authorities might need to keep them under close observation so they don’t beat up innocent bystanders, just as rugby league officials now have to keep an eye on their players to stop them committing gang rapes!
We’d still have a genuine sporting contest in those circumstances, because distinctions based on mental attitude, self-discipline, determination and intensity of training effort would make the difference between winning and losing. In some respects, we might view those sorts of acquired advantages as more praiseworthy than differences in talent, raw speed or strength (whether those latter attributes were innate or chemically or genetically engineered), because they may be seen as displaying desirable character traits. But what happens when technology allows those mental attributes themselves to be drastically altered by chemical or genetic interventions? Will we just be watching fleshy robots “competing”? Will it spell the end of elite spectator sport? Do we care?