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Friday, 22 March, 2002, 11:08 GMT
Engineering athletes
Sport's battle to rid itself of drugs cheats continues
Andy Miah, an applied ethics lecturer at the University of Abertay Dundee, discusses the possible impact on sport of genetic engineering.


In what ways can genetic modification enhance sporting performance?

Researchers are looking at the possibility of isolating "performance" genes and correcting dysfunctional ones.

Put into practice, this would make a person more healthy and, potentially, more capable of being athletic.


Genetics is an attractive option because there is a perception that it will be far more difficult to detect than are drugs
Andy Miah

Perhaps the most immediate concern to the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) is alterations to the non-hereditary "somatic" cells of the body.

In addition, there is a chance that already-completed scientific studies can be applied to sport to help establish a genetic blueprint for a top athlete.

Quite simply, this would involve correlating the genes of elite athletes with the patterns of youngsters, with a view to investing in those children that have the most promising genes.


Why are athletes interested in these techniques and could they be caught for using them?

There is no evidence yet, but it is assumed that some athletes will be driven to look at ways to enhance performance that fall outside the existing banned-drugs list.

Genetics is an attractive option because there is a perception that it will be far more difficult to detect than are drugs.

This perception is only partly justified.

Some believe genetic enhancements would be indistinguishable, because they comprise the same material that is already in the athlete's body.

Others, though, think it might be possible to track any alterations.


Who would an athlete turn to if he wanted to misuse this technology?

One of the dangers of this technology is not that it will be used for unfair practice in sport, but that researchers trying to create human alterations will turn to disreputable scientists to do the job.

Although there is nothing to stop athletes from seeking bad advice, the culture of genetic alteration in sport would not start in the changing room.

The onus would be on the athlete to understand the full implications of their actions.


How likely is it that genetic engineering will become common practice?

Wada is taking the matter seriously and that is some indication of the potential.

If genetics can enhance performance with no risk of detection, then it will surely be common practice for athletes.


Athletes are among the most likely candidates to be imitated by cloning, but this does not mean we can entirely recreate them
Andy Miah

There is an argument, however, that this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Society is beginning to recognise that genetics can be useful in many ways and sport may be just one example.

Side-stepping the issue of fair play, those who sacrafice themselves to be genetically modified, may be considered - in one sense - deserving champions.

We must also recognise that some forms of genetic manipulation might be legitimate, fair, and even good for sport.


Will it be possible to clone a gold-medal winner?

Athletes may be among the most likely candidates to be imitated by cloning.

But this does not mean we can entirely recreate them.

At most, cloning can replicate genetic pre-dispositions. But this is only one of many factors influencing the performance capacities of elite athletes.


Background

Nandrolone

Science and detection
See also:

21 Mar 02 | Sport Front Page
21 Mar 02 | Sport Front Page
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