by Jon Entine
BAXTER’S positive drugs test has drawn attention, yet again, away
from athletic achievements at the Olympics and back onto the role
of the science lab in professional sport. But forget mistakes with
a cold cure, genetic engineering is the real threat for the world’s
doping agencies. A doomsday scenario in which sport is dominated by
users of performance-enhancing, gene-altering drugs that are totally
undetectable is nearer than most in the West would dare to contemplate.
Science fairs displaying rabbits with human ears are already being
regularly held in China.
aptly demonstrates. Boosted by a genetic mutation that churned out natural
EPO at astronomical levels, MSntyranta won seven medals over
three Olympics in the 1960s.
"Genetic research is like unlocking the secrets of the atom," waxes
Chen Zhang Liang, vice president of Beijing University, which is bidding
to become a world centre of genetic engineering. "We need to push
According to sports scientists, China’s next great leap forward is
already well underway. Consider some of the results from the Chinese
Games in Guangzhou as possible evidence. Guo Lingling, just 15, finished
second in the women’s 400m hurdles. And just 11 days past his 14th
birthday, Li Huiquan won the 800m in world class time, only a few
days after nearly cracking 3:45 in the 1500m.
Bear in mind this was not the junior games but the quadrennial showcase
of the best Olympic athletes China has to offer. The results in swimming
by a band of unknown teenage girls, most not listed in the world’s
top 200, were equally mind-boggling. If the Chinese females perform
at the Athens Olympics as they did at the event in November, they
will win two out of three medals in every freestyle event from the
100m to 800m.
There is no hard evidence to suggest these unprecedented performances
were the result of genetic manipulation but China now has one of the
more rigorous drug-testing programmes in the world. Since nearly everyone
believes that these results are at the edge of, or beyond, natural
human performance limits, speculation has run rampant. After all,
it was only four years ago that Australian police nabbed Chinese swimmer
Yuan Yuan red-handed with 13 vials of genetically engineered human
growth hormone (hGH).
"Genetic engineering may have already started," warns Norwegian speed
skating champion Johann Olav Koss, with an eye toward China. A doctor
and member of the International Olympic Committee’s World Anti-Doping
Agency (WADA), Koss believes that: "We can’t be na•ve. We have to
FIFA, international football’s governing body, has become so alarmed
about the surge in use of another genetically-engineered drug, EPO
(erythropoietin), that it is introducing a test for it at the World
There is little doubt that the genetic revolution threatens to alter
permanently the nature of sport. As WADA chairman Dick Pound recently
said, "we will look back on Ben Johnson with his Stanoloxol [anabolic
steroid scandal in 1988 for which he was stripped of the 100m gold
medal] and say ‘that’s like an ancient rock painting in a cave compared
to what we face now with genetic engineering.’"
Genetic engineering is one of those concepts that stir a powerful
gut reaction. In recent years, biomedical researchers have made measurable
strides in gene therapy, which involves injecting the body with artificial
genes that help block diseases such as cystic fibrosis. The technique,
while still being tested experimentally on humans, has been used successfully
in animals. Many look forward to an age when some diseases will have
been wiped out and hospitals will be obsolete except to treat trauma.
Others fear the creation of soulless cyborgs that make Orwellian predictions
look timid. Almost always the controversy is projected as a future
concern. That may be true in medicine, but in athletics, genetic engineering
is not a theme of science fantasy, but a sobering fact of our cyborg
"Why would anyone who is willing to cheat use stimulants and steroids
when they can use genetically-engineered drugs, which are virtually
undetectable?" asks Charles Yesalis, a Penn State University epidemiologist
and world expert on doping.
Considering the high risk/high return nature of big time sports, athletes
are the ‘canary in the mine’, willing to experiment with magic elixirs
in the quest for gold. The temptation is enormous. Everyone from an
ageing footballer to a Kenyan-chasing British distance runner could
see their prospects brighten with the right genetic cocktail.
Unfettered by fears of being caught, athletes will likely shatter
accepted limits of human performance - but at an unknown and potentially
disastrous cost to their health. "If things spin out of control,"
Yesalis warns, "it could be a freak show in athletics." And that show,
warns sport scientists, may come as early as the 2004 Athens Olympics.
It may be a decade or more before doctors can remove embryonic fluid
and generate a read-out of the predicted sporting accomplishments
of our prodigies in waiting, but synthetic drugs are already in widespread
use. The revolution began more than a decade ago with the introduction
of hGH and EPO, which are now as popular with some athletes, and as
available as vitamin pills. A rich array of drugs is in the pipeline,
including a concoction that would postpone sexual development to keep
pre-adolescent female gymnasts in their performance prime. Scientists
and guinea pig athletes are also busy experimenting with various gene
therapies to regenerate the body after cartilage damage and fractures.
The next giant step in the genetic revolution in sport will come within
the year as geneticists begin experimenting with the direct injection
of artificial genes that would self-regulate muscle growth. Bulging
biceps, svelte calves and women-attracting pectorals may be just a
few injections away.
While hGH and EPO are extremely difficult to detect, the direct delivery
of artificial genes means that sport can kiss goodbye effective dope
policing. "If direct injection is used, the DNA will only be present
in that specific muscle," says Peter Schjerling of the Copenhagen
Muscle Research Centre. "A positive test would require coring out
actual muscle tissue. Not many athletes would allow that. And even
if they agreed, the sample would have to be at the exact spot of the
injection. That’s just not feasible."
For a glimpse of what the future cyborg athlete might look like, one
might peek into a dark basement laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania.
There, running tireless circles on a wheel inside a cage, is He-Man.
A few years ago, physiologist H Lee Sweeney injected a tiny white
mouse with a synthetic version of a gene called Insulin-like Growth
Factor 1 (IGF-1), a protein that makes muscles grow and repair themselves.
As Sweeney tries to remove him from his pen, He-Man clings stubbornly
to the cage bars. "He’s just showing off," says Sweeney, who is only
partially kidding. The IGF-1 boosted his muscle mass by more than
60%. Today, deep into old age, this gene-modified giant looks like
the Turkish heavyweight icon Naim Suleymanoglu. He-Man can still climb
a ladder carrying three times his body weight.
Researchers at London’s Royal Free hospital and University College
London’s medical school have developed a similar muscle-building protein
dubbed mechano-growth factor (MGF). As yet, scientists have detected
no health problems. The rodent-athletes, with no exercise, balloon
to four times their natural muscle mass but weigh only 30% more.
"We call them the Schwarzenegger mice," says geneticist Nadia Rosenthal,
who co-authored a study with Sweeney. "I’d be totally surprised if
it was not going on in sports."
Injections that would beef up muscles with limited weight gain would
be a magic elixir for sprinters, footballers, lifters, shot-putters
and other athletes who need quick bursts of power. Endurance athletes
- cross country skiers, marathoners, and cyclists - can turn to a
different set of promising genetic therapies.
Athletes and their scientist enablers are also eyeing the gene for
EPO, a hormone which is used by doctors to treat anaemia. The drug
version has become a dietary staple on the cycling circuit. The more
revolutionary injectable version has been shown to boost red blood
cell concentration by 60%. That is far more than the difference between
Olympic gold and also-ran status, as the case of skier Eero MS
As is frequently the case with genetic advancements, there’s good news
and bad. A single injection could elevate red blood cell levels indefinitely.
On the other hand, without a mechanism to shut down production, the
body could turn into an out-of-control EPO factory, leading to the thickening
of the blood with excessive blood cells, strokes, heart attacks, and
eventually death. But such problems offer only temporary barriers. Helen
Blau, chairwoman of the department of molecular pharmacology at Stanford
Medical School, has demonstrated that a gene could be introduced into
a mouse to stimulate growth hormone in the bloodstream and then be switched
off using an oral antibiotic.
"In theory, it is possible that an athlete could be genetically engineered
to have a gene so you could increase muscle strength, train with it
and shut it off when you want to," she says. "Not only would such a
development prevent inserted genes from spinning out of control, they
would render drug screening almost impossible."
World-record running times are made to be broken. Many performances
that were world-class only 50 years ago are routine now. In 1954, Roger
Bannister stunned the world when he broke the four-minute barrier. But
within six weeks his improbable record fell. Fast-forward to 1999 and
Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj lowered the record to 3:43.13.
The steady improvement in records of all sporting events may, at first
glance, look like biological evolution at work, but that is far-fetched.
Genetically we are much the same as we’ve been for millennia. And the
last 100 years, which have seen the most dramatic improvements, represent
but an eye-blink of evolutionary time. Moreover, any mutation that might
crop up and that could be of value for athletic performance (such as
enormously large lung capacity for marathoners) would quickly be diffused
in the gene pool. After all, humans like to ‘fool around’.
That said, genes matter. Elite athletes are by definition, freaks of
nature. "Very many in sports physiology would like to believe that it
is training, the environment, what you eat that plays the most important
role," says Bengt Saltin of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Centre. "But
we argue based on the data that it is ‘in your genes’ whether or not
you are talented or whether you will become talented. The extent of
the environment can always be discussed but it’s less than 20, 25%."
Geneticists are trying to bottle this wisdom. The question remains:
will we ever be able to isolate individual genes, that will radically
change physiology - and therefore alter the competitive balance in sports?
The answer is a qualified ‘yes’.
"It would be risky because of unknown side-effects but the basic genetic
advances have been made," asserts Saltin, who is himself a former competitive
runner. "I have no doubt that if this is being done on mice, humans
aren’t far behind. If scientists are willing to cooperate, athletes
will experiment on themselves. And it will fundamentally change sports
as we know it."
He imagines a scenario in which an ambitious sprinter sick of running
in Maurice Greene’s tailwind turns to a renegade geneticist for help.
This scientist is familiar with the latest research on muscles, including
the discovery of fibres that fire even more quickly than human fast
twitch muscles. This rebel geneticist readies a syringe of a synthetic
protein that can turn on these genes. Just a few injections of this
DNA into the quadriceps, hamstring, and gluteus, and the muscle fibres
start cranking out Velociphin, which activates the fast myosin gene.
In weeks, the muscles bulge with energy. As Saltin spins the tale, this
desperate athlete faces his long-awaited race into Olympic immortality.
Bang! The genetically-doped athlete dashes into the lead, extending
it with every stride. Then at 65m, far out in front of the field, a
sudden twinge tickles his thigh. Saltin picks up the story:
"At 80m, the twinge explodes into an overwhelming pain as he pulls his
hamstring. A tenth of a second later the patella tendon gives in - because
it is no match for the massive forces generated by his quadriceps muscle.
The tendon pulls out part of the tibia bone, which then snaps, and the
entire quadriceps shoots up along the femur bone. The athlete crumples
to the ground, his running career over."
"This is not the scenario that generally comes to mind in connection
with the words ‘genetically engineered super athlete,’" notes Saltin,
"but it is very much a part of the reality."
The sports community, and ethicists in general, are understandably on
edge. "Biological variation is fundamental to sport," Saltin asserts.
"You could say it is what gives a person their talent. This can now
be affected with genes, and this must be wrong."
The same line is espoused by the international Olympic movement. "Anything
you did not get from God is illegal," asserts Tim Conrad, a US Olympic
scientist. According to new IOC president Jacques Rogge, "Genetic manipulation
is there to treat people who have ailments, not to treat a healthy person.
I am very clear on this."
Few scientists see the medical or ethical issues as so black and white.
There is a hazy line between ‘health restoration’ and ‘performance enhancement’.
Imagine an athlete using gene modification to overcome congenital asthma.
What about genetically aiding someone who is destined to be short? Should
people be punished because the roulette wheel of genetics did not land
on their number?
Genetic enhancement obviously offers promising medical benefits, as
do tendon surgery and any number of treatments that are the result of
breakthroughs in medical technology. Do we want to leave it up to sports
officials or ethical arbiters to make life-altering decisions about
which therapies cross some line when genetic therapy becomes unfair
genetic enhancement? We can expect this debate, both medical and ethical,
to rage for decades.
"While the information from genetic science will feed through into better
treatments for disease," warns Bruce Lynn, a neurophysiologist at University
College London, "it is presenting the sports industry with a Pandora’s
Wake up sports world. The Pandora’s box is open. There are cyborg athletes
Jon Entine is author of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports
and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It