The End of Sport?

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?

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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David Tiley
2024 years ago

There is a huge pool of online stuff to be googled about this – just put in myostatin to see – because athletes already use a heap of hormones. We can possibly regulate the highest level use, but every neighbourhood in the western world has some body builder sweating over a home gym. And that is where the usage is really occuring.

The frightening thing about this is the complexity of these hormones. They have very different roles at various times of life; they are part of a system which is regulated to stop the organism from overloading or just exploding; skeletal muscle is different from heart muscle and the chemistry is different as well.

Personally I do think we are engineering our athletic population by putting top level athletes together. Again and again we find the second generation of (say) footballers going into their father’s teams with a mother who was also a top class netballer.

That is breeding for success.

I also think it is very difficult ethically to tell athletes they can’t use modern medicine to recover. The various growth hormones and factors are, I gather, just as important to repair as to build in the first place. How can we tell a footballer with a torn shoulder that s/he can’t use a therapy available to the burnt child in the next ward?

For that matter, how can you say no to an athlete who argues that a hormone will increase repair and therefore make the competition safer?

The Tour de France – my particular fascination – is a classic like this. The whole point of the event is that riders can’t blow themselves away on one day if they want to do it again next morning. The very test is to run people in a zone where fatigue is the crucial determinant.

The more we learn about the body, the more elaborate ways we find to chemically support athletes. Protein supplements? Free radical stuff? What about over the counter nutrients that increase uptake of protein in events like the TDF where you can’t physically eat enough to make up the food deficit in a given day?

Go into a laboratory and look at the exercise physiologists who work at the top class. Why are they doing it? They want to win. They want more than a few papers to distinguish themselves. And what better laboratory can we find to work out whether theories of physiology hold? What more willing subjects? And, of course, what sadder failures?

Tom Spencer, the cyclist, died in the middle of the Tour de France. He is believed to have said of drugs – “If ten will kill me, I will take nine.”

In some ways I think the regulatory environment will change from preventing performance enhancement to a workplace safety issue. The drugs should all be safe, and no-one should be pressured to take something dangerous. Go down that line, and you end up thinking that we should be ensuring that safe substitutes are available and actually encourage a certain kind of drug use.

I think the events against time have a limited life, sustained at the moment only by a kind of nationalistic fascination. With the decline of the iron curtain issue, the whole thing is already on th way out. Once this generation of ex Warsaw pact athletes disappear, we will have the US and everyone else. Then we will get bored.

The alternative, which is actually far more viscerally satisfying, is team sport. While we all know the issues there, at least we are not setting competition levels and speeds that can only be bested by drugged athletes and genetically altered frog-persons.

2024 years ago

If athletes are allowed to use whatever body enhancements that they want to, I would think it would come down to a question of money really, those with the most money to spend on the enhancements will get the best.

2024 years ago

In the long term it’s going to be an issue, particular genetic alteration. It won’t be all that long before modern medicine develops genetic and hormone based treatments that can extend life and vaccinate against various diseases. Then everyone is going to want those treatments, and it won’t be possible to *find* anyone who isn’t breaking the current rules.

Eventually it will be a free-for all concerning hormones and drugs in sport. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the rules change all the time and people gain advantages over one another.

Advances in nutritional science for example, would give any modern athlete a decided edge over anyone from 20 years ago. Bicycles in David’s beloved tour de France are faster, etc.

The only reason drugs in sport are different is because our society is already suspicious of drugs in general. I mean back in the 80s if you even mentioned “steroids” you’d get dirty looks – which is tough for kids with asthma who need them to live, etc.

2024 years ago

Firstly, using the word ‘sport’ in conjuction with ‘olympics’, particularly at the elite level, is misleading. The olympics, along with anything that appears on TV (football, golf, tennis etc.) has more to do with the entertainment industry than sport. Money is the major motivator for both the industry administrators and the participants. And where money is involved, all the sentiments about ‘fair play’ and ‘level playing fields’ go straight out the window.

Look at what is happening to one of Italy’s most famous clubs. The program I saw on TV the other night suggests that the players had little or no idea of what they were being given by the club doctor.

I think the time has come to allow an ‘anything goes’ approach to performance enhancement, PROVIDING the athletes give informed consent.

2024 years ago
2024 years ago

the GELF war

Over at Troppo Armadillo, Ken Parish has posted an article from The Weekend Australian about the potential effects of genetic engineering on sport.

Those of us who read rather more than is good for us already know what’s going to happen, of course,…

2024 years ago

Genetics and sport

The cricketer Muttiah Muralithiran claims that a malformed elbow is the reason he appears to throw the ball, which gives him an immense advantage over the other off-spinners in world…