The Coming Age of the Über-Athlete: What's So Bad about Gene Enhancement and Doping?
About This Event

It is said to be sports' doomsday scenario: a new generation of chemically enhanced or bioengineered athletes transformed from also-rans into world champions. We are entering an age often referred to as posthumanist, and sport is its leading edge. Elite athletes regularly remake their bodies in an effort to stretch Listen to Audio

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human performance, benefiting from dramatic advances in medical technology, reconstructive surgery, and drug therapy. Most physiologists, ethicists, and sport authorities have attempted to draw a line--one that critics say is hazy and unenforceable--that makes certain performance-enhancing drugs and gene manipulation off limits. But the reaction to the Mitchell Report, the investigation commissioned by former senator George J. Mitchell into the use of steroids by Major League Baseball players, indicates that the public is less critical and far more ambivalent about how--or even whether--to control gene and drug enhancement.

Should gene manipulation and drugs be permitted to alter the mythical "level playing field" of life? Should humans be allowed or even encouraged to change their natural athletic endowments, and, if so, would that open the way for manipulating other innate characteristics? Considering that sports are heavily subsidized by governments and what occurs on the playing field is often a leading indicator for the exploitation of new technologies, what implications does this coming era of the über-athlete have for society and public policy?

8:45 a.m.

Jon Entine, AEI

Opening Remarks:
Travis Tygart, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency
Panel I: Athletes under the Microscope
Dionne Koller, University of Baltimore School of Law
John Ruger, United States Olympic Committee
Kicker Vencill, elite swimmer
Jon Entine, AEI
Panel II: Drug Testing and Policy
Theodore Friedman, University of California, San Diego
Paul Haagen, Duke University Center for Sports Law and Policy
Randy Mayes, Triple Helix
12:30 p.m.
Keynote Address:
Edwin Moses, Laureus World Sports Academy
Panel III: Drugs, Genes, and the Future of Sports
Andy Miah, University of the West of Scotland
Thomas Murray, Hastings Center
Theodore Friedman, University of California, San Diego
Paul Haagen, Duke University Center for Sports Law and Policy
3:30 p.m.
Event Summary


Ushering In the Era of Über-Athletes? Hold On



WASHINGTON, JANUARY 13, 2009--Athletes are searching for a competitive edge in a variety of new ways--whether through out-of-bounds practices like doping and other therapies or simply through medical advancements and new training methods. But while some proponents of new technologies and doping in sports are enthusiastic about a new era of "über-athletes," opponents of such practices have struggled to draw a line that their critics have labeled ambiguous and costly to enforce. What separates illicit performance-enhancing drugs and gene manipulation techniques from acceptable practices?

At an AEI event on December 18, 2008, Edwin Moses, a two-time gold-medal-winning hurdler and pioneer in antidoping enforcement, discussed his experience as an Olympian and the challenges he has faced creating and enforcing antidoping measures. Moses competed in his first Olympic Games in 1976, and he was astounded by the role of performance-enhancing drugs, especially in women's events. American women were falling behind female athletes from Soviet bloc countries. "If you really looked at the women," Moses noted, they "looked a lot like men!" An athletic war was taking place, with athletes serving as geopolitical proxies for their governments, and governments were doing all they could--legal or otherwise--to give their athletes the greatest competitive advantages.

Consequently, Moses convened a group of athletes and formed an antidoping program. His group wrote rules for a U.S. antidoping program that conformed to Olympic standards. It was difficult, he said, because it "required us to think like athletes who were cheating . . . [and] the list of drugs was changing all the time." Not only were drugs changing, but training techniques were shifting as well. Moses said that athletes' training includes far more supplements and injections to boost cardiovascular ability than in the past. Moses' efforts eventually culminated in the creation of official antidoping agencies: the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Through the use of independent drug laboratories, Moses said, USADA and WADA are able to detect many of the most advanced and widely used drugs that some athletes use. But while many people have found this increased scrutiny on doping comforting, there is still broad disagreement over whether athletes should face any restrictions on their training at all.

Panelists at the conference, which was moderated by Jon Entine under the auspices of the National Research Initiative, included elite athletes, Olympic and athletic officials, and scholars studying the ethics and science of performance enhancement. Andy Miah of the University of the West of Scotland argued that restrictions on drugs and gene manipulation limit personal liberty, preventing athletes from achieving "morphological freedom." There are problems inherent with both pro- and antidoping viewpoints, he argued, because all actions take place in a moral and political framework built upon different people's disparate values. Under the umbrella of "doping" are separate activities that evoke varying levels of moral repugnance. For example, Miah explained, athletes use a range of technologies to affect performance--such as knowledge about training and nutrition--that contains "latent scientific principles that go into the foundation of what makes an athlete successful or not." This kind of technological development muddies the very definition of doping.

Thomas Murray of the Hastings Center disagreed, arguing that Miah missed the point about the purpose of sports. It is "not the means that decide the ethics of biomedical enhancement," he said. "It's the relationship of those means to the practice itself, to the values that underlie it, and to our flourishing as human beings." Murray illustrated the difference between genetic enhancement for a neurosurgeon and for an athlete. "The point of the practice of neurosurgery is not to show off the skills of the neurosurgeon. The point is to heal," he explained. "The point of practice of sport is to show my talents perfected to the ultimate I am able to bring them to." Genetic enhancement in sports is thus something that observers reject, since it creates an uneven playing field and poses health risks for athletes.

Furthermore, according to Theodore Friedmann of the University of California, San Diego, the claim that antidoping standards are arbitrary and incoherent is weak because any line can be perceived as arbitrary. As Friedmann noted, critics accuse "antidoping of being incoherent, and yet they embrace immature science in support of their own position." Friedmann agreed with Murray that sports requires a basic framework to create a level playing field for athletes and permit meaningful competition.

"We are left with two options," Murray concluded. "Either choose a system where anything goes, where you'll allow any kind of manipulation people are willing or persuaded to try . . . or you have to prohibit certain forms of biomedical enhancements."


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  • Henry Olsen, a lawyer by training, is the director of AEI's National Research Initiative. In that capacity, he identifies leading academics and public intellectuals who work in an aspect of domestic public policy and recruits them to visit or write for AEI. Mr. Olsen studies and writes about the policy and political implications of long-term trends in social, economic, and political thought.
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