Many reading this will already be aware of the various banned substances that some athletes use to gain the upper hand on their fellow competitors, notably the banned blood booster EPO, various types of steroids, growth hormones and many others. The drug testers and various anti-doping authorities always seem to be chasing the cheat, preparing themselves for the next generation of banned substances about to enter the ‘black market’.
There have been many discussions about ‘gene doping’ and how improvements in science and medicine will bring additional banned performance enhancers into the sporting arena. Yet, there is no hard evidence to prove that gene doping actually exists or will ever be seen to illegally boost a performance.
Theoretically, athletes who were to gene dope, would modify or enhance their gene structure, enabling them to perform better, possibly even adding genes to themselves. Alarmingly, it will happen, but we don’t know when.
Several years ago, a German coach was discovered trying to obtain a gene treatment that ‘encouraged’ the body to produce it’s own erythropoietin but there is now a test in place to detect such a treatment.
Although ‘gene doping’ would clearly be illegal in the sporting sense, it has major benefits in the world of medicine to aid certain gene deficiencies prevalent in many individuals. Gene therapy is in it’s infancy, still to be tried and tested to see if it is safe. Yet how many young athletes will be asked to use such a treatment for doping purposes, even before it is safe to do so? We have seen many deaths within cycling, many linked to the use of EPO, especially in the early 90′s. How many young athletes will have to suffer at the hands of unscrupulous suppliers who want the next stage win or yellow jersey?
Speaking in a recent interview, Dr. Theodore Friedmann, Chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Gene Doping Expert Group said “We know of course that in sport, people who want to circumvent rules and regulations and who want to cheat won’t wait for all the technical issues to be solved and all the I’s to be dotted and T’s to be crossed, and will not pay much attention to ethical standards of doing things to human beings. So, there will be cheating – and I’m afraid that the misuse of these methods that we know from gene therapy that they are not perfect and that they do carry enormous risks under some conditions.”
Dr. Theodore Friedmann went on, “I think all primitive societies have some kind of competition, athletic competition. And so there’s something really basic about sport that one really needs to honor. And to say that there’s nothing different with sport and that one can simply let it be driven by biotechnology and by the most clever sort of biologists lurking in the shadows, I think that’s very sad and certainly destroys our concept of sport.”
Friedman believes that advances in the testing procedures will be able to detect any gene doping, should it occur, but will tests be available before the cheating athletes are able to take advantage of it’s benefits?