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Leveling the Playing Field: The Olympics, Doping, and the Enhancement Debate

The opening of the Beijing Olympics this Friday has provided another occasion for much public reflection on the ethics of sports doping. Already seven Russian track and field athletes have been suspended by the international authority for those events. It is not hard to imagine that betting pools will be created not only on the number of medals won in this Olympiad, but also on the number of medals withdrawn due to doping rules violations.

An upcoming Center for American Progress panel, “Sports Doping and the Age of Enhancement,” will examine these issues from the standpoints of science, ethics, and industry. Join us this Friday, August 8, from 12:00 pm to 1:30 pm.

Beijing Olympic logo

In one sense there is no issue: No one in any competitive enterprise should have an unfair advantage. So stated the point is a truism, for who is in favor of “unfairness”? However, it is also clear that detection is going to become more of a challenge. One strategy might resort to genetic interventions that result in the production of more naturally occurring proteins that in turn spur the body’s manufacture of oxygen-carrying red blood cells or of muscle cells. “Gene doping” would thus represent an “advance” over the artificial introduction of the compounds themselves, like the drug erythropoietin or EPO, which regulates red blood cells and can be detected.

Some argue that the whole debate is misplaced, that enhancement already takes place among athletes in many different ways, like using high altitude chambers or special elbow surgery that may improve strength. Others contend that, though it may be hard to draw lines, the point of sport is the combination of personal initiative along with making the most of natural gifts, that our very humanness is at stake if we succumb to the hubristic pursuit of perfection rather than the achievement of excellence. (Writing here at Science Progress, Arthur Caplan also considered the ethical questions of doping, including those involved in recent major league baseball scandals.)

The legal standards applied in both amateur and professional sports make this more than an academic debate. Still more importantly, the enhancement issue in sport is the canary in the coal mine for a much wider societal debate about how far the life sciences can and should take us, a profound question that seems to be unfolding as a key theme of the 21st century.

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