U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps. Olympic athletes often have genetic advantages… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
We like to think of the Olympics as a level playing field — that’s why doping is banned. But scientific research complicates this view: There are numerous genetic factors known to confer advantages in athletic contests, from mutations that increase the oxygen carrying capacity of blood to gene variants that confer an incredible increase in endurance, and these mutations appear to be especially common in Olympic athletes. In other words, we may want an egalitarian Olympic games, but it probably isn’t in the cards.
In the latest issue of the journal Nature, Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans, a duo of forward-thinking biotech leaders at the firm Excel Venture Management in Boston, propose an alternative: Push the limits even further. They understand this may be unpalatable to the average fan, but they argue that the games are already full of biological competitive advantages.
They write that “almost every male Olympic sprinter and power athlete ever tested carries the 577R allele” — a version of a gene that enhances performance. And that’s just the beginning. There are endurance-related genetic variants in some athletes that have been shown to be far more likely to occur in those who successfully summit high mountains, and less likely to occur in those who fail to. These genes, they argue, are quite common, and “athletes probably need a subset of them to achieve elite status.”
There are also spectacular examples of extreme abilities that are conferred from genetic mutations. In the 1960s, the Finnish skier Eero Mäntyranta won seven Olympic medals in cross-country skiing. Tests later revealed that he had a mutation in his EPOR gene, which improved his blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity by somewhere between 25% and 50%. This almost certainly contributed to his remarkable streak of medals; taking supplements that mimic his mutation is strictly banned as doping.
In the face of all these variants, Enriquez and Gullans write that we are already watching a cohort of the genetically elite when we tune in to the Olympics: “a showcase of athletes born with genetic advantages,” they write. But, of course, some athletes' genetics confer more advantage than others.
In the future, they argue, there are only two ways the playing field could ever truly be level. One would be to handicap individual athletes based on their genetics, a la Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron.” But the approach that is favored by the authors would be to allow for what is called “gene doping” — “to allow athletes who did not win the genetic lottery to ‘upgrade’ through gene therapy.”
In gene therapy, genes are generally ferreted into cells by way of viruses, which allows them to integrate into a person’s own DNA and begin producing new proteins. In the case of endurance athletes, one might introduce the coveted variant of the EPOR gene to improve oxygen-carrying capacity.
Given the clear genetic advantages of many athletes, they argue, removing relative genetic ‘disabilities’ just may be the only way to finally make the Olympics fair while still keeping them fun to watch.
“After all,” they write, “we watch the Games today to marvel at athletes who are ‘faster, higher, stronger’ — whether man or woman, amateur or professional, ‘disabled’ or not.”