GENE DOPING IN ATHLETES



Introduction Gene doping refers to the “nontherapeutic use of cells, genes, genetic elements, or modulation of gene expression, having the capacity to enhance athletic performance” (10). Whilst this ergogenic aid may help improve athletic performance (3), athletes should consider the potential risks and impact that this illegal ergogenic aid can have on themselves and the sport. Some of the topics to be discussed include the health risks of athletes associated with gene doping, the unfair advantageous position gene doping has against competitors, and the potential threat to the integrity of the sport gene doping may have.

Health Risks Although there are well-documented performance benefits of gene doping (3), athletes that use gene doping to enhance athletic performance may place their health at risk due to the potential side effects of gene doping (9). Some of the performance benefits of gene doping include improving endurance, strength, increasing muscle mass and assisting in rehabilitation and pain management (1, 2, 6, 8). However, with these athletic benefits come potential health risks. Depending on the potential gene edited in the athlete (i.e. EPO, IGF1, etc), the health risks associated can differ. Some of these potential health risks include increased blood viscosity, muscle and joint damage, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, hypertension, tumour growth, cancers, and even sudden death (3). On the other hand, certain genes used for gene doping such as ACTN2, ACTN3 & PCK1 have displayed no current health risks on athletes whilst displaying a performance benefit (3), and further research is necessary to identify if there is safe administration of these genes to be legalised by WADA (9). So the question that needs to be asked is what is the value of athlete’s health and safety? The research suggests that undertaking gene doping procedures to gain a competitive athletic advantage may be a significant risk for athlete’s health and is obviously banned on WADA’s prohibited list for a reason. In addition to this, gene doping may place athletes in an unfair advantageous position against competitors.

Unfair Advantages Gene doping places athletes in unfair advantageous positions when compared to their competitors who aren’t gene doping. Sports such as Olympic lifting, power lifting, and track and field events rely heavily on athletic attributes and having some athlete’s gene doping doesn’t create an even playing field and may heavily favour those who go against the rules. In other sports such as contact sports (i.e. AFL, MMA, rugby etc.) having this unfair physical advantage may also place competitor’s health at risk. Not to mention the expensive costs involved with administering gene doping, with one dose of therapy costing just under $1,000,000 AUD (4). If this ergogenic aid were to be legalised by WADA, the wealthier clubs/athletes/organisations may improve even further as they will be able to afford the treatment, again potentially creating an uneven playing field. Using a Utilitarian ethical framework as a moral compass, it is important to identify what is right and wrong by recognising the greatest good for the greatest number of people (7), and with the amount of individuals that could potentially be negatively impacted by gene doping, it is worth considering other options to improve athletic performance. Although there may be a potential confirmation bias due to the pre-existing belief about illegal ergogenic aids and their unfair advantages (i.e. steroids), gene doping may also impact the integrity of the sport.


Integrity of the Sport Being a banned ergogenic aid on the WADA list, athletes that undertake gene doping may threat the integrity of the sport, which is another reason why this is banned by WADA (9). Sporting clubs, organisations and athletes that gene dope or undertake prohibited ergogenic aids may establish a negative public image, which has previously shown to have severe negative impacts, similar to the Lance Armstrong debacle. Some may argue about the potential benefits of gene editing to treat cancer patients (4, 5), however using this illegal ergogenic aid to help with athletic performance doesn’t compare to treating cancer, and this may leave a negative public image on the sport. This could also establish an unattractive coercive environment amongst the sport as athletes may feel the need to use illegal ergogenic aids such as gene doping to be able to compete with their competitors, similar to cycling and the use of EPO and blood doping. Athletes and sports clubs may sometimes forget about the current technologies and resources available that are legal, safe and can help with athletic performance (i.e. coaches, state of the art gyms, etc). So why should athletes place the integrity of the sport at risk, whilst risking their lives and health to potentially improve their athletic performance? Not to mention that these athletes most likely have some of the best resources available which could lead to improving athletic performance.

Summary Gene doping is currently a prohibited ergogenic aid on WADA’s banned list, however athletes may choose to use illegal ergogenic aids to enhance their athletic performance at their own risk, which could lead to severe and potentially fatal consequences. Although this is the case, athletes, sporting clubs and organisations should be aware of the risks associated with the administration of gene doping. Some of these risks include the potential negative impact gene doping can have on athlete’s health, the advantages of gene doping which may be deemed as unfair and unsafe against competitors, and the possible threat to the integrity of the sport. Although some studies have suggested that certain genes used in gene doping can aid athletic performance whilst having no negative health impact, further research is required in this area as this ergogenic aid is currently prohibited by WADA.


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