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Olympic Games, Gene Passports and Identity

posted by:Corien Prins // 11:09 PM // February 07, 2006 // ID TRAIL MIX


I like tentatively combining highly different developments and hopping from one thought to another. Internet is a perfect tool for doing this. It offers me challenging opportunities to develop a line of thought that I never expected to end up with when I initially started thinking about the first topic that crossed my mind. Here is one such scenario that developed while roaming the hyperlinked world that is called cyberspace: the Olympic Games, performance enhancement, gene passports and identity.

Anticipating the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Italy and reading about fears for yet another record number of doping cases, my mind sketched a scenario that started with the dramatic Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger. And indeed, it is going to be a wonderfully exiting and spectacular period for those who love alpine-skiing, ice-skating, snowboarding or one of the many other icy sports that are on schedule for the Games. Numerous records will be broken by a selected few, who have the physical and mental capacity to reach out for the ultimate success in sports. And Turin, Italy, would therefore be my favourite place to be between February 10th and 23rd. Nevertheless, like many other millions of fans, I must be content with merely watching my favourites on the screen. Images of nervous athletes who keep on training their bodies and sponsors anxiously waiting to see whether the millions they spent will indeed increase brand awareness. My favourite athlete will, of course, do his or her utmost best but doing their best is definitely not good enough here. In the end there is only one ultimate test: going home with an Olympic gold medal.

I check the virtual newspaper, blogs and other online sources for the latest news on the physical and mental condition of my athletes. While reading this information, I come across discussions that testify that there is much more than just eternal fame. There is money as well. Millions of dollars for those who know how to play the game. Being successful in top sports definitely appears to be a highly lucrative business. And then I discover a webpage with a story about various incidents that shows that money changes the face of sports in a myriad of ways. One of these is the role performance enhancing instruments play. It is here that my academic background enters the scene regarding the challenges of technological opportunities. Of course, I hear myself mutter, technological progress is an increasingly important dimension in the meaning of modern-day sport. I am aware of various ‘simple’ improvements, such as a new type of ice skate, the klapskate, that allows the heel of the boot to rise and fall while the entire blade remains in contact with the ice. This and other technological improvements have been easily and widely introduced and are nowadays broadly accepted. But then I wonder, what about the opportunities offered by genetic performance modification? What about applications such a genetic doping, gene therapy and even the selection of athletes on the basis of genetic information? It may very well be that this new technology threats the very foundations of top sports. Then I ask myself, who will be the real winner of the Olympic gold medal, man or technology?

I think of the challenging questions that arise because of the introduction of gene-technology into the world of sports. Are athletes entitled to full autonomy when it comes to deciding whether to genetically enhance their performance? If not, how then do we determine and set the limits of genetic performance modification and, what value and moral concepts are of relevance here? What do terms such as fair play, dignity and personhood mean in this debate? And what about the personhood and the identity of genetically enhanced athletes? Genetic modification in sport certainly implies some deformation of the athlete’s personal authenticity and thus identity. What kind of people will such athletes then be?

I ask my search engine for answers. The first set of hits teaches me that for many it will be inevitable that gene-technology therapies will progressively be incorporated into the international sports arena. Some appear to worry about the effect of this development on the nature of sport. I read a comment in Wired from Friedmann, the Director of the Program in Human gene therapy, of the University of California-San Diego that he believes that instead of a feat of athleticism being the result of skill, training and dedication, in the future, people will wonder if the success of an athlete is merely a product of bioengineering: “It’s a threat to sport as we know it”, Friedmann argues. Others disagree. I come across an article from 2004 by Savulescu, Foddy and Clayton in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Their argument is that: “Performance enhancement is not against the spirit of sport; it is the spirit of sport. To choose to be better is to be human. Athletes should be the given this choice. Their welfare should be paramount. But taking drugs is not necessarily cheating. The legalisation of drugs in sport may be fairer and safer.” Provocative as well as inspiring are also the broadly available citations from Andy Miah’s analysis on genetic modification in sports, sport ethics and human values. “Sport is a technology and genetic modification is consistent with its most basic values”. Apparently, a key conclusion of his book entitled, Genetically Modified Athletes: Biomedical Ethics, Gene Doping, and Sport is that being human matters in sport, but genetic modification does not have to challenge this capacity. Miah concludes in saying that what is ethical about genetic modification in sport relies upon understanding what is valuable about being human. Human dignity, autonomy and the capacity for being capable of making strong evaluations are of key importance here. I immediately order his book from a well-known online bookstore.

But then it crosses my mind that genetics can, of course, offer much more than modification and doping dilemmas. I think about the opportunities genetics could offer for the prospective screening of athletes. Remembering the recent sudden death of a well-known soccer player in my country, I anticipate that screening for certain diseases or biological characteristics could eliminate dramatic consequences in sports, such as instant heart failure. Internet teaches me that worldwide, several countries have introduced cardiac screening for their sports men and women (I come across Italy, for example, where it is mandatory for representative athletes of all ages to undergo annual heart checks). Screening based on genetic information could dramatically enhance the success in contrast to using traditional screening procedures. But then I ask myself: where will this lead us and, what are the possible influences on society as a result of developments in the genetic screening field? I think of a future scenario in which amateur sports men and women are required to be tested for a possible predisposition to certain physical illnesses because they carry certain risk-taking genes. Quick reference to my search engine teaches me that while genetic screening of professional athletes offers hundreds of resources, there is little discussion on the use of gene testing on amateur athletes or the general public. I know that – well at least in my country – amateurs in different sports are required to obtain a certificate proving they are ‘qualified’ to carry out that particular sport (golf exam and horse riding exam). What about a certificate testifying that I am physically fit to participate in a certain sport? Would it not be a perfect idea, to provide me and my sports club with a certain level of security that I will not be struck by instant heart failure, or suffer from any other serious ailments, that could have been prevented had we known that I had a predisposition to this illness? I imagine a world where sport clubs require their members to carry such a ‘gene-passport’. Needless to say, the genetic data listed on this passport are also available to the many organizations and companies which have a obvious interest in this information: insurance companies, employers, public or private health companies. By that time it will also be generally accepted that genetic information provides clear indications on a person’s predisposition for bad behavior (for example his or her lack of empathy and remorse). I include this in my line of thought after visiting a website that cites a UK study showing that behavior is influenced by multiple genes and, a certain combination of genes may increase vulnerability to a disorder and other psychopathic tendencies. The source and study appear to be reliable – being funded by the UK Medical Research Council, the Department of Health and the Home Office and published in 2005 in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Apparently, I am not the only one who is thinking about the opportunities this information offers. Hsien Hsien Lei suggests on his Genetics and Public Health Blog that genetic information may play a key role in fighting terrorism and terrorists should donate their DNA for scientific research >, “so that we know what makes them tick.” Because, when reading on: “If there are risk-taking genes and genes for psycho-social behavior, then they must have a disproportionately high number of genes coding for deviant behavior. I know it is a human rights violation to conduct biological research on unwilling study participants, but maybe that could be part of their sentence.” And this is just the beginning. Initiatives such as the BioGrid project hope to piece together coherent pictures on what can be learned from genes, what can be predicted from them and, what practical applications can be developed.

My time is running out, other writing obligations wait and so I have to finish this story Internet is helping me to write. With a final query I hope to find perspectives on gene passports in sports. I am surprised that there is relatively little to be found. Horses seem to have such a passport, but I cannot find in-depth studies on the consequences when it is used in the field of amateur sports. One final try: identity and genes. For is it not genetic information that reveals the very essence of personal identity? Only a handful of references pop up. Authors such as Miah discuss identity in relation to concepts such as personhood, humanness and authenticity. Concepts that are familiar to those who try to understand what constitutes identity. But there is more. For one of the challenging dilemmas in genetics is that the information find may also tell you something about the ‘identity’ of a whole family.

I must rush, but it strikes me that we need to discuss more what the future of genetics will hold for the concept of identity. I admit that my brief ‘journey’ that started with the coming month’s Olympics merely raised questions and provided no answers, let alone a particular position or opinion. But perhaps my scenario will inspire readers to elaborate on the different interests at stake, the choices to be made and, generally the possible benefits and harms arising from the growing influence of gene technology in our society. Sports may be a perfect domain to start with. But don’t forget to watch this wonderful event that is called the Olympics.

Corien Prins is Professor at the Faculty of Law, Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society.


Rugby players spend a lot of time physical training Compared to other form of sports.I have read the
Rugby laws mentioned on this site. It's a gripping sport which targets the grip strength and the active mindedness of a player. American football and rugby league are also primarily collision sports, but their tackles tend to terminate much more quickly. For professional rugby, players are often chosen on the basis of their size and apparent strength and they develop the skill and power over the passage of time. In modern rugby considerable attention is given to fitness and aerobic conditioning as well as basic weight training.

Posted by: Rugby Fan Steve at August 26, 2006 04:52 AM

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