Posted on Nov 10, 2003, 6 a.m.
By Bill Freeman
DOUG GILLON It would be easy to spot a swimmer with webbed feet, goalkeepers with hands like satellite dishes, and basketball players on giraffes' legs, but what of other genetic modifications. Lungs designed to saturate oxygen for endurance running; arms custom-built for golf, tennis, baseball-pitching, or javelin-throwing; knees constructed for skiing; sprinters, perhaps, with cells cloned from cheetahs, and rugby-players ditto, but additionally modified with cells from the fighting Miuras of the Spanish bullring.
It would be easy to spot a swimmer with webbed feet, goalkeepers with hands like satellite dishes, and basketball players on giraffes' legs, but what of other genetic modifications?
Lungs designed to saturate oxygen for endurance running; arms custom-built for golf, tennis, baseball-pitching, or javelin-throwing; knees constructed for skiing; sprinters, perhaps, with cells cloned from cheetahs, and rugby-players ditto, but additionally modified with cells from the fighting Miuras of the Spanish bullring? Jonah Lomu would look like Ronnie Corbett.
Science fiction? Sport does not believe so, as evidenced by the decision by the World Anti-Doping Agency and International Olympic Committee to add genetic manipulation to the list of offences under their rules.
Their executive committee, has announced a new list of banned substances and methods in Montreal, and has given three months' notice so that it can take effect from January 1. Genetic engineering, which could modify limbs, muscles or organs in a future freak-show has been outlawed: "Gene or cell doping is defined as the non-therapeutic use of genes, genetic elements, and/or cells that have the capacity to enhance athletic performance."
Dick Pound, the WADA president, said: "By introducing the notion of genetic doping into the list at this time, we are taking into account the important changes occurring in doping techniques."
It all sounds like Boys from Brazil fiction, but the generation which followed Dr Mengele's obscene experiments on children was responsible for East German government-sponsored doping of athletes. It delivered a conveyor belt of champions, ignoring fatalities, mutations, and sex changes which have now led to compensation being paid to victims.
Every method of cheating in sport, from the abuse of stimulants, analgesics, and steroids, through beta blockers and human growth hormone to blood-boosting erythropietin, has been rooted in medical advances for the benefit of mankind, but subsequently highjacked and corrupted to enhance sport performance.
There is no reason to believe that those disposed to cheat would ignore the latest medical advances. Competitors prepared to risk death for the glory of standing upon the top step of the Olympic rostrum will risk being a circus act for the financial rewards now available.
When genetic engineering fears were raised last year at a London conference, Michelle Verroken, head of anti-doping and ethics for UK Sport, dismissed the immediate threat as "scare-mongering" in an interview with The Herald.
"There is a pressing need for gene therapy, but we are still no closer to a cure for AIDS," she said, "and despite research involving billions of pounds, there is also no cure for cancer. At this time I don't think sport has a problem with genetic engineering. Research focus is elsewhere."
Perhaps, yet some 500 genetic studies worldwide involve human subjects, and Pound suggests that techniques such as those used by his Canadian compatriot, the discredited sprinter Ben Johnson, will be viewed like the rock paintings of cavemen 100 years from now.
For years, sport has lagged behind the cheats. Tests for growth hormone and blood doping are a legal minefield, but a pre-emptive genetic strike is commendable.
Pound wants all sport federations to sign up to the anti-doping code before the Athens Olympics. It is a symbolic deadline as the Games return to the site of the first modern version and the "original ethics of sports."
- Oct 2nd
Source: The Electronic Herald (www.theherald.co.uk) on the 2nd October 2002