Gene Doping & the Olympics

Cutting-edge medicine is perhaps most likely to be sought out by those with desperate need. Desperately ill people might be the first group of such people to come to mind. But what about people who are desperately driven to win in sports?

From Andrew Moseman on Discover’s “80 Beats” blog: Geneticists Are On the Lookout for the First Gene-Doping Athletes

We’re only a week away from the 2010 Winter Olympics opening in Vancouver, and the return of the games brings with it the return of crazy stories about how far world-class athletes will go to get even the tiniest edge, legal or illegal. In the journal Science this week, researchers led by geneticist Theodore Friedmann take the opportunity to warn about gene doping, the next looming crisis in cheating at high-stakes athletics….

This story brings up a range of ethical issues (not all of them unique to genetic technologies), including:

  • use of experimental technologies on desperate patients;
  • good sportsmanship;
  • the perverse dynamics of an arms race, and what we can reasonably expect, ethically, from people involved in one;
  • the lure of all things “genetic” — apparently it’s nearly cat-nip for people seeking powerful effects;
  • the distinction between treatment and enhancement. That distinction that is surprisingly hard to define clearly, but it’s important to think about, since it divides 2 goals about which people tend to have very different ethical intuitions.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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1 Response to Gene Doping & the Olympics

  1. Allison Conner says:

    Synthetic EPO has already made its way into the sports world and is currently considered the most “popular” form of doping, which is horrifying because it is so dangerous. EPO is said to be, a “favorite of triathletes, marathon runners, Tour de France cyclists, and others who engage in long periods of aerobic activity” (Behar, 2008). The natural function of EPO is to elevate the amount of red blood cells, which means that those who have additional EPO make more red blood cells, can carry more oxygen to their muscles, and therefore improve their performance in endurance events. When EPO first became popular in the early 1990s, athletes were taking it at extremely high doses. This caused their hematocrit levels to increase so rapidly that their hearts simply could not keep up and most of the athletes died. The blood basically becomes so thick at these levels that the heart becomes damaged in trying to pump it (Reynolds, 2010). Control with EPO gene therapy is even more difficult because the body cannot self-regulate its production once the gene is injected. With the widespread use of synthetic EPO, it is extremely likely that EPO gene therapy will become popular soon as well. This is so dangerous because simply not enough is known about all of the effects of injecting this gene.


    Behar, M. (5 August 2008) Will gene therapy destroy sports? Discover Magazine. Retrieved on 1 February 2010 from

    Reynolds, G. (10 January 2010). Will Olympic athletes dope if they know it might kill them? The New York Times. Retrieved on 1 March 2010 from

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