26 March 2012
ByAppeared in BioNews 650
Designer Athletes: Fair Play or Foul?
Organised by the Physiological Society
Kia Oval, Surrey County Cricket Club, Kennington, London SE11 5SS, UK
Monday 19 March 2012
Consider a future world where pharmaceutical and genetic enhancements are the norm for sporting champions, where today's world records are smashed into oblivion.
The idea of 'designer athletes' may seem far-fetched but it could become a reality sooner than you think, thanks to advances in gene therapy and pharmaceutical research.
A controversial area of research, this was the focus of the debate 'Designer Athletes: Fair play or foul?', hosted by The Physiological Society in London at the Kia Oval.
I was excited as soon as I read the name 'Designer Athletes' in my inbox; it conjured up images of a sports version of the film 'Gattaca'. And it didn't disappoint - it was a thoroughly thought-provoking event.
Chaired by Ed Smith, former England cricketer and journalist, the evening started with short talks given by the panel: Dr Steve Ingham, head of physiology at the English Institute of Sport; gene doping researcher Dr Cristiana Velloso; Professor Ron Maughan, researcher into sport, exercise and health; and Dr Maria Kavussanu, an expert on morality in sport.
The discussion touched upon many controversial issues - from who is to blame for the consumption of banned substances (the coaches, the athletes?) to whether it would be more ethical to consume natural or synthetic versions of performance-enhancing substances.
But, in my opinion, it never answered the fundamental question: In a world that is inherently unfair in the opportunities it presents to athletes, why do we allow some types of performance-enhancing regimens (take high altitude training, for example) but prohibit others?
If 'fairness' is our guiding principle, why do we have a problem accepting these methods - are they not simply levelling the playing field for athletes that haven't been born into ideal genetic or socioeconomic circumstances?
And in this unfair world, is it possible to draw a line over which athletes shouldn't cross in a fair way?
With such a wide range of questions, from liability for doping, duration of bans, and fairness in sport, being well answered I was a bit let down by the way the panel tackled these more philosophically taxing questions.
I felt there was a lack of in-depth debate and an avoidance of the root of the issue. For example, when elite marathon runner Jason Maddocks asked: 'How are decisions about 'the line' made?' Professor Maughan was the only one who spoke up. 'We are all cheats', he exclaimed, thanks to food and training that can moderate gene expression.
Clearly, the difficulty they had in answering highlights the complexity of the issues - full of grey areas with no absolute answers.
But this is why I enjoyed the event: it made everyone more aware of the controversies that lie in wait, and pointed out that at this stage in the game the ethical issues of doping in sport are as clear as dishwater.
More events like 'Designer Athletes' will get people thinking and talking about doping, so if a time comes when designer athletes are a reality we'll be able to step up to the plate and 'draw the line' with clarity of thought, not just on our initial gut reactions.