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Chris Keenan
Chris Keenan

GMO: Genetically Modified Olympians

Gene-doping, the term for the newest in concerns for Olympic officials ever-vigilant for new forms of cheating is, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency, “the non-therapeutic use of cells, genes, genetic elements, or of the modulation of gene expression, having the capacity to improve athletic performance".

Like soap opera plots, Olympic history has had it all, from mud-slinging to murder, with every drama reflecting the era in which it took place. For example, it seems nonsensical by today’s standards for a charioteer to win a race he fails to finish purely on the judgment of officials, who decide that he would have won had he not fallen from his chariot. Put the same event in the context of ancient Rome, casting the charioteer as Emperor Nero, however, and it all makes perfect sense.

As with ancient Rome’s chariot-racing scandal, the new concern over gene-doping makes sense given today’s strong concerns regarding gene modification. Whether used to make our food supply hardier, more sustainable and affordable, or to make inroads into new health treatments, many are leery about the process, as it purports to supplement a host organism with DNA, either organic, yet not intrinsic to the host, or else completely artificial, with the goal of improving some aspect of the host organism. The attraction to athletes would be the possibility of achieving greater stamina, for example, by forcing alien DNA into their blood from a host carrier, such as a virus.

An onslaught of genetically modified athletes is a real fear for many Olympic officials, mainly because beyond labeling the concern there is little they can do about it. Dr Williams, Reader in Sports and Exercise Genomics at the Manchester Metropolitan University, rates the odds of discovering alien DNA in an Olympic contender “similar to finding a needle in a haystack." He also suggests UK DNA testing could beat the challenge in a few years time, just not quickly enough to affect this year’s Olympics.

In the meanwhile, officials must live with the nightmare spectre of medals retracted down the line and the realization too that thousands of vials of blood slated to be drawn in 2012 could prove a waste of both time and money, at least in the interim. Vials can be kept for up to eight years against the possibility that new tests could reveal new cheaters.

However, there is worse to be feared than any greater expense incurred by more up-to-minute-tests in future Olympics, or any hyper-vigilance required. Indeed, one wonders what sort of over-the-top measures of safety and hygiene would have to be taken to ensure something as minute as a strand of DNA isn’t introduced into a competitor’s test vial. The risk is athletes in pursuit of the perfect DNA could die. Modification therapies remain far from perfect and patients have experienced dangerous side effects and even died.

Sometimes, over-eager eager coaches can be just as foolhardy as their athletes. In evidence, the 1904 Summer Olympics was nearly marred by a fatality when a second place marathon winner passed out after passing through the finish line, all because his trainers gave him a combination of alcohol and strychnine.

A more recent tale of trust betrayed unfolded in 2006, culminating in a coach for some of Germany’s most stellar young athletes receiving a conviction for doping his charges with performance-enhancing substances. During Coach Thomas Springstein’s trial the prosecution unveiled an e-mail detailing Springstein’s desire to procure Repoxygen, a till-then little known gene-therapy drug designed to boost the body’s production of red blood cells. As every athlete knows, more red blood cells equals greater oxygen, which leads to improved stamina and overall performance.

It seems Coach Springstein never procured his Repoxygen, which is just as well. While some EPO (the hormone the drug directs to boost the cells) enhancing drugs have had alarming consequences, producing death in some cases by overproduction of red blood cells, Repoxygen was designed to turn itself off when its mission was accomplished. Athletes with optimal red blood cells may have experienced little result. However, a door opened and the world’s athletes and coaches looked inside when Springstein’s trial unveiled the quiet underworld of illegal use of genetic modification substances. It's certain many peeking past that threshold have already tried steroids, blood transfusions or hormone therapies. It’s certain some will choose to walk through this new door, even at their peril.

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