I noted in an earlier post that the Rio Olympics marks the first time that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has proactively tested for cheating, specifically for gene doping.
A recent article in New Scientist rehearses some arguments for why gene doping should simply be accepted, rather than banned and policed. I want to briefly go over those arguments here.
First, the likelihood that officials will be able to catch every conceivable kind of gene doping is remote. After all, tests for conventional doping catch perhaps 2% of cheaters. The detection rate for gene doping may be even worse. Thus, policing gene doping is simply futile.
This point presents a grave problem. Widespread evasion of policing undermines its integrity and also respect for it. Add to this the evident existence of policing avoidance programs, such systemic doping in Russian athletics, and the whole testing regime seems to become irrelevant.
Second, some gene doping can improve an athlete's health, e.g., by improving muscle tone. It would be wrong to prohibit someone from accessing a resource that makes them healthier.
This objection is not compelling. As noted earlier in the piece, athletes regularly take risks with their health. In part, this is because sports necessarily feature certain restrictions on what athletes may or may not do. Some restrictions give rise to unusual health risks. If this were wrong, then sports would be wrong.
This does not mean that anything goes with regard to risks in sport, just that judging which risks are acceptable or otherwise is a matter of some nuance.
Third, it would be fairer if gene doping were not restricted. In particular, it would mean that athletes without some natural genetic advantages could acquire them artificially.
In order to prevent some kind of doping arms race, it is suggested that acceptable thresholds and tolerances be defined, e.g., a maximum level of red blood cells.
It is worth noting that this sort of proposal has already resulted in difficulties, such as the case of "hyperandrogenous" women. Caster Semenye was required to take drugs to keep her natural testosterone level in the "female" range, a regulation that was recently overruled.
In any event, it is not clear that genetic fairness is a requirement for sport. In the past, someone with a gift for a particular athletic activity has simply been admired for cultivating it. It is not clear that someone who lacks such a gift is owed access to it through technological means.
Of course, it may be that biotechnology will change how people think about sport. If it becomes simply a matter of performance or entertainment, then these arguments may become more compelling.