It would make today's "cat and mouse" detection of drug-taking athletes seem trivial. It would produce excellence without effort, challenging the spirit of the Olympics and the meaning of all sports competition. More broadly, it could become a kind of referendum on how the world views the improvement of humans through technology.
The catalyst is an emerging science called gene modification or gene enhancement. Using it, an athlete could be injected with the DNA of an animal, for example, and quickly become much faster and stronger. "You don't need to lift weights, and you don't need to go on 10-mile runs to train for endurance," explains Peter Weyand, who teach kinesiology - the study of muscles and human movement - at Rice University in Houston. "It would replace training; it would make training seem trivial and more than obsolete. Somebody who's not athletic at all could be transformed into something superhuman."
Today's world-class athletes are already genetic oddities, possessing superior native abilities that they hone through training - and in some cases, through illegal drugs. But with genetic engineering, anyone might enhance his or her abilities "100, 200, 500, 1,000 percent," Dr. Weyand says. Borrowing the fast-twitch muscles of a mouse, for example, could create superfast sprinters. "If you start to think about the extremes in nature, it's absolutely frightening" to consider what's possible, he adds.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which determines which substances are banned in international sports competitions, is so concerned that it has already declared gene doping illegal, even though it believes it's unlikely that anyone is doing it yet. "The time to grab hold of this matter is now," said Richard Pound, president of WADA, at a meeting of prominent scientists earlier this year. He urged them to devise ways to detect genetic enhancement even as they develop the technique. Medical researchers are excited about the possibilities of genetic therapies to help patients with muscle diseases such as muscular dystrophy, and to strengthen the elderly.
Interest in genetic enhancement in the sports world has exploded since publication in March of a study in a scientific journal showing that mice and rats underwent remarkable changes when injected with a gene that promotes growth. H. Lee Sweeney, a University of Pennsylvania researcher, found that these "Schwarzenegger mice" showed up to 50 percent muscle growth. Rats altered in the same way gained 35 percent in strength when the technique was combined with exercise. Since reporting his findings, Dr. Sweeney has been inundated with requests for information from coaches and athletes.
Though Sweeney's work is years away from trials in humans, that doesn't mean that others might not be quietly moving ahead, eager to reap the benefits. "The technology is available now for athletes to use. They're taking a big risk by doing it, but nevertheless it's out there, and they could be trying it," says Andy Miah, a bioethicist whose book "Genetically Modified Athletes: Biomedical Ethics, Gene Doping and Sport," was published last month in Britain. As last year's sports scandal over the designer steroid THG and the continuing drug disqualifications at this year's Olympics show, "athletes are still doing things we don't know about," he says.
Gene therapies hold so much promise for helping humanity, Dr. Miah says, that he has urged the WADA not to treat them simply as a new form of illegal doping. For example, gene therapy potentially could be used to repair the injured muscles of athletes. Would that use also be illegal? "It's that kind of boundary that's unclear from the present rulings," he says. By making genetic modification illegal, athletes may seek out "rogue scientists," he says. "If we do prohibit it, we push it underground, and we don't know what athletes are doing. They don't know what they're doing." If we regulate instead, "we can try to make sure they're doing it in a safe manner," he says.
That's why Miah favors legalization and regulation over a ban. The world of sports already recognizes differences in innate ability, he says, as shown by the paralympics competition for those with various disabilities, and the use of weight classes in sports such as boxing. Regulation would make it possible to look at the genetic profiles of athletes and decide which ones are suited to compete against one another, he says.
Right now, no test exists to detect genetic enhancement, though finding foreign DNA eventually might be possible by taking tissue samples from athletes. Equally unknown are the side effects.
"All bets are off when you start playing with genetic engineering ... in terms of system function, organ function, and long-term effects," says Weyand. "If you put in superfast muscle, are you going to alter function in a way that the tendons and the bones might not be able to support the loads?... You might start to snap tendons and bones. There might be deleterious health effects. We really don't know."
Yet the benefits will be overwhelmingly attractive to athletes. Strength and speed aren't the only abilities that could be supersized. Red blood cells could be enhanced to carry more oxygen, revolutionizing endurance sports such as cycling, cross-country skiing, and long-distance running. The technique also might be used to alter the way athletes sense pain, Miah says, allowing them to push themselves harder and challenging sports' ancient work ethic: "No pain, no gain."
"It's a terrible situation," says John Hoberman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied the history of sports doping. Legalizing genetic modification would lead to "anarchy," he says. "Inevitably it's going to turn [sports] into a kind of circus - a freak show."