Since the inception of competition, gaining a competitive advantage has been a persistent goal for athletes. For centuries, the competitive advantage naturally went to those with faster reflexes, greater stamina, and body types that “fit” the sport. In the 1900s, weight training entered sports in earnest when it was demonstrated that physical training brought an advantage beyond natural ability. The role of diet was also considered, with athletes debating whether or not “carbing-up” before a game made a difference. As athletes pushed their bodies to do more, pain killers came into use during games to allow athletes to continue playing after being injured. With painkillers came the question of whether or not “playing hurt” might shorten a player’s career. Overall, the performance an athlete might achieve was set by what was innately possible for that individual.
Steroids entered the sporting scene in the 1980s and literally changed what it meant to be competitive. Natural talent, training and exercise, or the use of painkillers no longer constituted the greatest tools available. Now athletes could not only bulk up to unimagined levels, but they could also recover from injuries in record time. These banned substances conferred a competitive advantage beyond what was possible through grit and hard work alone.
Beyond Natural Ability and Limits
The latest innovation in the push to ever-better results in sports is the use of bioengineering. This blending of biology and engineering to improve an athlete’s abilities can be put to use through a variety of methods that range from the unintrusive to the truly intrusive.
At the unintrusive end of the spectrum, one might study a pitcher’s motion to detect moments that cause fatigue leading to possible injury. Understanding the biomechanics of the pitching motion makes it possible to alter the motion. Another approach might be to use the biological properties of materials along with engineering to design swimsuits or uniforms that render the swimmer more aerodynamically efficient or keep athletes more comfortable during play. Both of these practices take current personal medicine and equipment manufacture to new levels, yet neither makes a permanent change to the athlete’s biology.
In the 21st century, with the mapping of the human genome, we have the ability to shift the paradigm entirely through the use of direct genetic modification to enhance a player’s abilities at the cellular level. For example, could — and should — technologies such as CRISPR be used to alter athletes’ DNA? What would be the repercussions of reducing muscle fatigue or improving vision far beyond normal human capabilities using such techniques? And, despite earnest discussions around the ethics of genetically modifying babies, there are likely to be some parents interested in modifying their children before birth to give them athletic advantages. Indeed, companies already promising training plans, injury prevention tips, and nutrition guidance based on DNA — the first step toward muddy waters.
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Eventually, we might see the manufacture of “kits” that would alter an individual’s DNA in the specific ways necessary to bring about the best performance in a given sport. Controversial figures such as Josiah Zayner are already selling gene editing kits out of garages; with improved technologies, one can’t help but wonder whether such kits could be easily accessible by athletes and their coaches to perform back alley gene editing where once the crime in the shadows was administration of performance-enhancing drugs.
The results could be like nothing we have ever seen — and could create an entirely new category of athlete. Forget working out and eating carbs; these new athletes would have the edge before they ever broke a sweat or ate a bowl of pasta.
But such a future is incredibly controversial. Beyond the next level of steroids, bioengineering the next generation of athletes carries with it ethical considerations at the core of being human. “Designer babies,” such as those whose genomes have been edited for genius-level intelligence or soccer-star abilities, have long been a concern for gene-editing advocates and opponents alike.
Debating the Role of Bioengineering in Sports
In 2018, the Global Sport Summit held a panel addressing the implications of gene editing in sports. The panel focused on CRISPR because it is a technology that makes it possible to alter an individual’s DNA without detection using current technology. The positive possibilities of CRISPR could include a method for curing rare diseases. Yet, using CRISPR to alter an athlete’s DNA — also known as sports doping — is already included in the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) banned technology because of its potential to confer limitless competitive advantages at the genetic level. The panel’s consensus was that we are on the brink of a formerly unthinkable level of control over our genetic makeup.
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This possibility brings with it new areas of concern and debate. What will constitute unethical enhancements? Will it be as clear as stating that anything that brings an athlete’s vision to 20/20 is acceptable while anything that takes it beyond that level is not? Will enhancements that allow a player to watch a fastball coming toward them, as Mickey Mantle once said, appearing like a moon hanging in the air along the way, be considered ethical because they do not break new ground? Who will define the line between peak performance and unfair advantage?
There is already a divide between athletes who train with the latest and best equipment and techniques and those who do not. If some athletes are recipients of bioengineering and others are not, will those without it ever be able to complete? Will we be creating a category of athletes that have superior ability that precludes others entering into play?
Bioengineering and Society
By opening the conversation around CRISPR as a technology for improvements in sports performance that is likely the first of many more to come, we are able to view the ramifications of its use from a distance. We can speak about tennis players or golfers, baseball players or swimmers, and debate the pros and cons of making these alterations and their effect on the game. The bioengineering debate in sports focuses on specific changes that might enhance performance in a specific set of circumstances.
Once bioengineering at the level of DNA becomes common practice in medicine, it will be only a matter of time before it becomes part of what athletes do to prepare for participation in competitive sports. With genetic engineering accepted in medicine and sports, it will open the door to questions of use in the general population. The difference is that the pros and cons of altering DNA for the performance of daily tasks will not be as clear as the alterations needed to cure a lethal disease or to enhance a particular aspect of sports performance. Enhancing success in everyday life won’t be about hurling a fastball or racing around a track; it will be about less tangible attributes such as the ability to remember all the details of a case or transaction without notes or the ability to work for 72 hours straight without needing sleep.
As was the case with workouts, cross-training, painkillers during a big game, and the use of steroids, the use of genetic modification in sports will usher in the possible use of genetic modification in the general public. As coaches, athletes, scientists, and fans approach the unknown potential of genetic modification in sports and beyond, we are wise to be wary. We know what has happened as a result of even the smallest attempts to influence the sporting outcome through artificial means — even with relatively “benign” approaches. With that information in hand, we need to be cautious when we consider using genetic modification on something as essential as our own DNA. We must be certain that we proceed with care, with controls in place that make it possible to know what has been modified and what has not until we can observe the effect of these changes over time. We must also take whatever experience has to offer and keep it at the front of the debate about the effect of these new technologies on society as a whole, as well as upon each individual.