The Mutant Olympics: Genetic Enhancement and Doping in Sports

Julian Savulescu, Professor of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, has argued that “[g]enetic enhancement is not against the spirit of sport; it is the spirit of sport” [i] quite succinctly capturing one side of the ongoing debate about the role of Human Enhancement Technologies (HETs) in competitive sports. This argument states that enhancement is the very essence of such endeavours, striving to always improve on the limits of the human body. The counter argument is the more traditionally held view that such enhancement technologies could be ‘unfair’ or ‘cheating’. I will take a quick look at the arguments that arise in these circumstances and conclude that the only solid justification for regulation or prohibition of HETs, particularly genetic doping, should be that of safety.

The term “spirit of the sport” comes from the WADA Code, adopted in 2003, which follows the principle that doping is contrary to the “spirit of sport” and “the essence of Olympism and how we play true”. [ii]  It also states that the spirit of sport is the “celebration of the human spirit, body and mind”; the point may be raised here that the inclusion of safe genetic doping in sports is itself a celebration of the spirit of ingenuity, the human body (as we have come to shape it) and the human mind (in creating such advanced technologies). This brings up the rather strange anomaly that we seem happy to praise the sporting achievements – on the basis of sportsmanship and fair play – of those born with advantageous genetic traits,[iii][iv] though we are so quick to label technologies that seek to artificially give similar advantages as cheating and unfair. Considering that people have the unfair advantage of being born with the right genes anyway, should we ban these ‘natural mutants’ from competing?[v] If we wouldn’t outright ban people with natural genetic mutations, why is it OK to stop others from gaining similar advantages?

Consider that Oscar Pistorius was allowed compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics, despite evidence that his prostheses might have indeed given him an advantage;[vi] 

“How could someone without lower legs possibly have an advantage over athletes with natural legs? The debate took a scientific turn in 2007 when a German team reported that Pistorius used 25 percent less energy than natural runners.”

Why not extend this to gene doping? In gene doping it is at least relatively likely that others could follow suit, leading to a somewhat level playing field. However, with Pistorius’ case people could not get similar prosthetic legs as very few doctors are likely to agree to amputate for sporting reasons (though Dr. Krieger from Archer does spring to mind). Genetic enhancement as such does not go against the Olympic Charter[vii]or the Olympic Spirit.[viii] However, cheating does go against both.[ix] The important point here is what we ‘define’ as cheating.

Yes, gene transfer might have its inherent risks and dangers, even possible links to leukemia,[x] [xi] but it cannot be said of many sports played at a highly competitive level that they are not subject to serious health hazards. Professional boxers, footballers, even tennis players all suffer a multitude of health disadvantages due to their careers, from the sheer high impact nature thereof or due to traditional forms of doping.[xii] Do the risks of allowing gene therapy in competition really pose more danger than those we currently accept? On the one hand, we may not need to worry too much about using this technology in exploitation of poorer nations, are in this case the likelihood is that the richer nations will be able to afford these treatments. On the other hand, it could run the risk of poorer, or particularly nationalistic nations, very focussed on winning, using riskier, unsafe treatments.[xiii]

The existence of risks should not be trivialised, but nor should it be used as a reason to strictly prohibit emerging HETs. Demand for gene therapy suggests that, if prohibited, these technologies are likely to be abused anyway, as currently happens with many forms of doping. Perhaps better to have it out in the open – where there is honesty there is no ‘cheating’ as such. Savulescu, in the UK report Human Enhancement Technologies in Sport,[xiv] and many others make the point that risks currently exist in most forms of sport and that competitors “[…]may harm themselves less with drugs when doctors can be openly involved and masking agents dispensed with.”[xv] Adults should be allowed to take risks, and will likely do so when motivated towards success. “By the end of this century the unenhanced body or mind may well be vanishingly rare,”[xvi] certainly in professional sports.

One editorial in Nature makes an excellent suggestion regarding trying out at HET-inclusive system in the Tour de France, (even more pertinent today than it was in 2007);[xvii] 

“In terms of public respect, endurance cycling has the least to lose and perhaps the most to gain. To be sure, a change in the rules would lead to the claim that ‘the cheats have won’. But as no one can convincingly claim that cheats are not winning now, or have not been winning in the past, that claim is not quite the showstopper it might seem to be.”

This approach would acknowledge the reality that “there is no reason sport must remain purely a test of natural ability.”[xviii]

Ultimately we will probably have to accept that any line we draw  between what sort of enhancement or advantage is or is not allowed will be at least partially arbitrary in nature. It will be a compromise rather than a statement based on any finding of absolute right or wrong.  Various governing bodies in the sports world should take this into account when deciding on rules and procedures; that is not to say that everything should be permitted just because we currently allow a certain level of unfair advantage, but rather it means that they should at least acknowledge the line will be somewhat arbitrary when drawing it. If creatine and caffeine are already allowed because they are safe, this should be extended to any similarly safe gene doping techniques.[xix]

Such an approach would hopefully allow for a more reasoned debate when issues arise as to the fairness of a certain rule or exception and as to how to deal with technological innovations which might change the sporting landscape, allowing us move away from the often polarised, intractable debates that currently rage on these issues. The most likely and in my opinion reasonable way forward is to implement tiered competition,[xx] with a ‘gladiator'[xxi] class of athletes or a ‘superhuman games’,[xxii] or in a similar vein to implement handicaps for enhanced competitors.[xxiii]

~ Shane

[i] M Skipper, ‘Gene doping: A new threat for the Olympics?’ (2004), Nature Reviews Genetics 5, 720

[ii] The World Anti-Doping Code. Fundamental Rationale for the World Anti-Doping Code, see

[iii] Almost every male Olympic sprinter and power athlete ever tested carries the 577R allele variant of the gene ACTN3. About half of Eurasians and 85% of Africans carry at least one copy of this gene. see: Y Berman, and K N North, Physiology, (2010), 25, 250–259.

[iv] J Enriquez and S Gullans, ‘Olympics: Genetically enhanced Olympics are coming’, (19 July 2012) Nature 487, 297, available at

[v] The case of the German muscle boy might be interesting if he wanted to compete in later life; M D Schuelke, et al., ‘Myostatin mutation associated with gross muscle hypertrophy in a child’, (June 24, 2004), The New England Journal of Medicine 350, 2682-2688.

[vi] R Eveleth, “Should Oscar Pistorius’s Prosthetic Legs Disqualify Him from the Olympics?”, (24 July 2012), Scientific American, available at

[vii] International Olympic Committee, Olympic Charter, (2004), available at:

[viii] International Olympic Committee, ‘Olympic Spirit’, (2008), available at:

[ix] G Wolbring, ‘Oscar Pistorius and the future nature of Olympic, Paralympic and other sports’, (2008), 5:1 SCRIPTed 139, available at  

[x] T H Murray, ‘An Olympic Tail?’, (July 2003), Nature Reviews Genetics 4, 494.

[xi] L Pray, ‘Sports, gene doping, and WADA.’ (2008,)  Nature Education 1(1), “When Wilson and colleagues injected macaque monkeys with viral vectors carrying the EPO gene, the host cells ended up producing so many red blood cells that the macaques’ blood initially thickened into a deadly sludge. The scientists had to draw blood at regular intervals to keep the animals alive. Over time, as the animals’ immune systems kicked in, the situation reversed and the animals became severely anemic (Rivera et al., 2005).”

[xii] ‘Warning: Games seriously damage health’, (3 August 1996), The Lancet, Volume 348, Issue 9023, page 277, available at

[xiii] L Harding, ‘Forgotten victims of East German doping take their battle to court’, (1 November 2005), The Guardian, available at

[xiv] House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, “Human Enhancement Technologies in Sport” (2007), available at:

[xv] Editorial (Anon), “A sporting chance” (2007) 448 Nature, 512, available at:

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii]  J Savulescu, ‘Why We Should Allow Performance Enhancement in Sport’, Ev 80, in; House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, “Human Enhancement Technologies in Sport” (2007), available at:

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] A Miah, ‘Genetic Technologies and Sport: The New Ethical Issue’, (2001) Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, XXVIII, 32-52, see also; B Kayser, A Mauron and A Miah, “Viewpoint: Legalisation of performance-enhancing drugs” (2005), 366 The Lancet, S21.

[xxi] J Bryant, ‘Playing Dirty’, Outside Magazine, (1999), available at:

[xxii] ‘Forget the Olympics – Here come the superhuman games for genetically enhanced athletes’,  19 July 2012, Mail Online, available at:–Here-come-Superhuman-games-genetically-enhanced-humans.html#ixzz2NEw1yJnJ

[xxiii] Ibid.

Photo credit: Stéfan via photopin cc

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