Engineering a Better Olympic Athlete

During the broadcast of the Closing Ceremony last night by NBC, commentator Joshua Cooper Ramos took note of the progress the Chinese athletes have made in recent years and referred to China's nationalized sports program as "an engineering project." Fellow commentator Bob Costas was quick to agree, pointing to the country's focus on developing elite athletes from early childhood while paying scant attention to the physical fitness of those of its children who do not show precocious potential as future Olympians.

Not surprisingly, China won the most gold medals (51) of the Games in Beijing. As with many things developed in a Communist state, those medals were the result of a good deal of planning and long-term follow up. Nationalized sports programs are nothing new in the Olympics. The Soviet Union dominated the Games for years with cradle-to-medal-podium training regimens. But China's athletics "engineering project" still raises questions about the fairness of big, state-controlled programs competing against those of smaller, free-market nations. In other words, were these Games fair for all? Probably not, but the world is not a perfect place.

The bigger question, though, lies implicit in the comments of the NBC commentators: Can a nation engineer premier Olympic athletes, as if they were automobiles or aircraft?

The answer to that appears to be yes. And there are fears now that unscrupulous administrators of sports programs in years ahead could use highly sophisticated methods to give their protégés enhancements that go well beyond those that come from selective recruitment and nationally subsidized training.

In the most controversial (and illegal) example, a practice called gene doping, the medical techniques used to manipulate genetic material for therapeutic purposes are subverted by corrupt physicians to enhance the physical makeup of athletes. In a report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (see Strong New Measures Against Gene Doping in Sports Urged at Conference Co-Sponsored by AAAS), gene therapy researchers urged participants at a recent meeting of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) held in St. Petersburg, Russia, to advocate for stricter attention to the threat of gene doping in sports.

Gene doping could be used to modify an athlete's own genes to increase muscle mass or boost red blood cell production, for example.

"Science has moved so quickly in gene therapy and because it moves so quickly, it makes the non-therapeutic use of these kinds of methods much more likely and much more imminent," Theodore Friedmann, a former president of the American Society of Gene Therapy, told conference attendees. "And the sooner it pops up in sport, the more likely it is to pop up in other areas."

The experts in illegal performance enhancements called for governments to legislate sanctions against those who might be tempted to tinker with the genetic material of athletes in order to boost their prowess. The experts also called on physicians to be more vigilant in looking for signs that competitors have been genetically enhanced.

So far, according to the scientists, no documented cases of gene doping in the world of sports have been uncovered yet. That does not mean that somewhere there isn't someone trying to do it. The reward is so great that it seems illogical to believe that some ambitious program wouldn't stoop to the level of trying to engineer a better athlete genetically.

It's one thing to selectively train a young person to become a talented competitor as an adult. It's quite another to try to build one through human chemistry.

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