[Paleopsych] BH: Sports Enhancement's Biggest Fan
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Thu May 19 19:09:42 UTC 2005
Sports Enhancement's Biggest Fan
Andy Miah promotes genetic modification of athletes not only to improve
competition, but also to improve humanity
Baseball's drug scandal is so 20th century. While former slugger
Mark McGwire pleads the fifth over steroids, today's athletes plead
with researchers for genetic tweaks. It's widely assumed they'll have
them by the 2008 Olympics--if not sooner.
Anti-doping agencies have reacted predictably, with the World
Anti-Doping Association (WADA) banning "gene doping" in 2003. But the
advent of genetic enhancement has also provided a crowbar for prying
open debate over enhancement-prohibition, genetic and otherwise.
At the forefront of this debate is ethicist Andy Miah, author of
the book Genetically Modified Athletes. Against the backdrop of
baseball's steroid brouhaha, Miah recently landed in Toronto where he
made the case to a cramped room in the University of Toronto's
To Miah, there's far more than medals at stake. How we handle genetic
enhancement in sports, he argues, will affect how we handle genetic
enhancements in general. "The gene doping debate is about what kinds
of humans count," he says. "Sports offer a way for enhancements to
become embedded in society."
At just over five feet with spiky black hair and goatee, the
baby-faced Miah could easily be mistaken for a student at the
Starbuck's where we met a day before his talk. (Confession: at about
the same height and baby-facedness, the same could be said of me--and
I can't even grow a goatee.)
As a professor at the University of Paisley in Scotland, however, Miah
teaches such courses as "Becoming Posthuman" and writes regularly on
cyberculture, bioethics, sports and genetic enhancement.
His writing has gained urgency and notoriety as genetic enhancement
moves from science fiction to fact.
Scientific journals now regularly report genetic advances for which it
takes little imagination to see athletic application. Perhaps most
famously, geneticist Lee Sweeney at the University of Pennsylvania
discovered that injecting the gene for a growth factor called IGF-1
doubles muscle strength in rats. Since the discovery, Sweeney says
he's been swamped by requests from athletes seeking to participate in
And why shouldn't they? asks Miah. The idea of the "natural athlete,"
he says, is a hypocrisy, as sport--from the latest greatest running
shoes to stamina-boosting altitude chambers--is inherently
Furthermore, he says, anti-doping actions only provide an illusion of
fairness "Those athletes we pin gold medals on are the ones who avoid
the drug tests," he says. "We can't test for everything." With genetic
enhancement, testing will be even more difficult, as athletes will
have their DNA altered to improve performance rather than use
Encouraging public acceptance
This--the practical impossibility of enforcing gene doping bans--is
just one strike against prohibition. Miah raises many more issues. For
example: Would people born with genetic modifications be allowed to
play sports? Should gene therapy be used to equalize genetic
constitutions so that competition is based more on skill and training
than the genetic lottery? Would gene therapies that help athletes
hasten healing also be banned under blanket prohibition?
Such questioning puts Miah is in good company. U of T Faculty of
Physical Education and Health Dean Bruce Kidd, for example, agrees
with Miah that the ethical foundation of anti-doping is in need of
review. Miah says this hasn't happened in about 40 years. "I would say
ever," says Kidd, although he supports anti-doping initiatives.
Moreover, Kidd supports equality in sports. The question for people on
both sides of the anti-doping debate is how best to achieve this.
Miah argues that genetic enhancement is one way. He believes that
genetic enhancement could generally make people more capable, and he
worries that sporting bodies will exert too strong an influence over
Ultimately, he hopes that athletics can make genetic enhancement more
acceptable to the public, while baseball's current predicament shows
this hasn't happened with drugs.
"Drug-using athletes are represented as monsters, mutants," says Miah.
"To me this is about enhancing humanity."
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