Super Athletes: A Public Dialogue About Genetic Enhancement and Sports

Super Athletes: A Public Dialogue about Genetic Enhancement & Sports

Co-Sponsored by Geneforum and Portland State University's Center for Academic Excellence, February 11, 2005, Portland, Oregon

Featured Speakers

  • Theodore Friedmann, M.D. Director of the Program in Gene Therapy at UCSD [pdf]
  • Mari Holden, silver medalist in the 2000 Olympic time trial and the first Olympic road cyclist since 1984 to win an Olympic medal in road cycling [pdf]
  • Maxwell Mehlman, JD, Director, Law-Medicine Center and Professor of Biomedical Ethics at Case Western Reserve University [pdf]

(The above links point to each speaker's presentation.)


In 1995, a New York Times survey asked nearly 200 aspiring American Olympians if they would take a banned substance that would guarantee victory in every competition for five years but then would cause death. More than half said they would.

Advances in the field of gene therapy have conjured up possibilities of genetically engineered human athletes. It is projected that within the coming decade – perhaps as soon as the 2008 Olympics – most of today's synthetic performance-enhancing drugs, from anabolic steroids to erythropoietin (EPO), may be largely abandoned in favor of a far more effective, and all but undetectable, strategy: gene doping (modifying a person's genetic makeup so that the body produces more hormones, proteins, or other natural substances that will improve athletic performance). The impact will be broad, affecting sports at all levels. However, it will be the elite athletes with dreams of gold medals, multi-million dollar contracts, and multi-year sponsorship deals who will initially stand to gain the most from the possibilities created by genetic science.

Society is divided on what kinds of "enhanced performances" we allow for athletes. But given that genetic enhancement is within reach it is critical that we are prepared to grapple with the consequences and the ethical and social issues it raises. In the words of Theodore Friedman, Director of the Program in Human Gene Therapy at the University of California at San Diego, "The science will be done, no matter what. The question is: How do we get a grip on the implications?" Should genetic manipulation be banned altogether from the arena of sports? Should it be allowed for athletes healing from injury or recovering from disease? Where does manipulation end? If the technology can be made safe, do healthy athletes have the right to engineer themselves to push the boundaries of success? Are we likely to ever have the means to effectively monitor, detect and control genetic manipulations?


February 11, 2005: McCall, William, "Genetic doping imminent problem for athletes, experts say," Associated Press.

February 6, 2005: Bachman, Rachel, "Researchers look to head off gene doping before it starts," Oregonian.