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Friday [1.12.17]

Biohacked athletes: The future of doping

We’re in a very strange era of sport where the desire to ever-improve human ability may have well and truly exceeded our natural limitations. As a result, performance-enhancing science has seemingly surpassed the barriers of control.

Unfortunately, it took recent hall-of-fame doping scandals like the Lance Armstrong saga and Russian state-sponsored program to bring to light the extent of what exactly is going on behind the scenes. But in this game of cat and mouse between athletes and regulators, what will we see next in the science of winning? The answer may lie in biohacking.

The World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) considers substances or practices for banned status if they meet two of the following three criteria:

  1. Have the potential to enhance or has been shown to enhance sports performance
  2. Represent an actual or potential health risk to the athlete
  3. Violate the spirit of sport

These guidelines have traditionally provided a pretty reasonable logic for what should be allowed and prohibited. For example, anabolic steroids, erythropoietin (EPO) and human growth hormone are all lifetime members of the banned list. But with further advancements in biohacking science, the lines are starting to become increasingly harder to both define and regulate.

In fact, University of Western Sydney exercise psychologist Dr Jason Siegler says the biggest test for doping detection will come in the near future as more understanding of the genetic factors related to performance are uncovered by the research community.

To be fair, we’ve kind of been researching this stuff for a while. In the 1960s, Finnish skier Eero Mäntyranta won 7 Olympic medals and was later discovered to possess a rare genetic mutation causing huge increases in red blood cell count, haemoglobin levels, and therefore oxygenation capacity. In other words, he benefited from what Lance Armstrong and co. achieved through dangerous EPO injections. But what if developing the genetic framework of a superstar before you’re even born is a choice rather than a chance?

Pre-birth doping

The concept of genetically modifying perfect athletes goes a bit beyond the science explored in Space Jam. In August, a team of scientists from the US, China and South Korea announced that they had successfully altered the DNA of human embryos. While the research has been focused on correcting mutant genes that may lead to disease, the technology could soon be used to not only avoid passing on undesired genes to children, but to design children with specific traits – creating perfect athletes before they’re even born.

In an article published by Western Sydney University, Dr Siegler states “Imagine a sporting environment where performance is determined by unnaturally 'switching on' the genes that determine your speed, agility and performance, boosting your performance and giving you an edge you wouldn't otherwise have." It’s a very real possibility.

In fact, the possibility is so very real that earlier this month WADA announced that from 2018 they will extend their doping bans to cover gene editing. However given their track record of not-so successfully catching dopers, many believe that once again, they may be a few steps behind the science they are trying to regulate.

Ethicist Julian Savulescu notes in a column for the British Medical Journal that it will be near impossible to tell whether a red-blood-cell count was a ‘natural’ mutation like Mäntyranta’s or something done in a secretive lab, stating that “You will have difficulty telling the difference between a natural-born freak and a gene-edited freak.”

The spirit of sport

Interestingly, the debate regarding doping in sport continues to cause more of a divide as these large scale cases become public. Anti-dopers argue that perpetrators completely destroy the idea of a level playing field, while putting themselves and their opponents (in the case of contact sports) in danger. Pro-dopers argue that the level playing field ideal is a myth given the unequal availability of legal performance-enhancing strategies (like better equipment and training facilities). Furthermore many believe that the potential harm of these drugs could very well be minimalised under a supervised, decriminalised system.

The debate around gene editing is different again. Yes, it presents amazing opportunities regarding improving long term health and wellness of the child, and the prospect of safely designing a Lebron James sized sprinter with Michael Phelps lungs could certainly have its perks, but as ethicist Art Caplan tells ABC "Designing your descendants and seeking out perfection is the biggest slippery slope we could go on. Are the rich going to be able to do it and the poor not? Are we going to create a sort of subpopulation of the genetically perfect as against everybody else?"

Similar to the clash of opinions around enhancing our bodies with robotic elements, it may be a while before we have anything close to agreement on what the future of sport may hold. The idea of sport being an all-inclusive celebration of human achievement may not only change, but the very definition of what it means to be human could also be thrown into question.

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