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Genetic therapy is the latest game for sports cheats | (KRT) Cycling officials for the Tour de France have vowed to crack down on the age-old scourge of performance-enhancing drugs, but it's really too little, too late.

It's not just five-time defending Tour champion Lance Armstrong who is facing accusations that he used a banned substance, a charge he vehemently denies. It's baseball players such as Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi and Olympic superstars such as Marion Jones.

Never have so many top U.S. athletes been accused of cheating. But the sad truth is that the savvier athletes know the use of banned drugs might soon be passe. A far more controversial development, gene therapy, promises to change the nature of athletics, and athletes, forever.

Genetic technology, which already has altered our food supply, will soon be used to enhance our muscles and bodies, scientists say. Gene therapy can help rehabilitate patients suffering from muscle-wasting disease such as muscular dystrophy and improve muscle function for the elderly.

But it also would inevitably be co-opted and abused by opportunistic athletes. Already, eager early adopters are knocking on the door of University of Pennsylvania genetic researcher H. Lee Sweeney, who has found that combining genetic manipulation with weight training can double muscle strength and speed in rats.

Society is divided on what kinds of "enhanced performances" we allow for athletes. But given that genetic enhancement is within reach - whether that means specially designed lungs for runners, or sprinters with cloned cheetah cells -- we'd better be ready to grapple with the consequences.

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"We enhance ourselves pharmacologically with drugs and cosmetic surgery," said Theodore Friedmann, director of the Program in Human Gene Therapy at the University of California at San Diego. "The question from an ethical point of view is, `What's different about using genes to do the same job, when maybe they do it better?'"

What's different is that genetic enhancement clearly betrays the essence of sport: using hard work and natural talents to compete. Biotech applications raise concerns over equity, safety, and social and moral acceptance.

Most athletes would be too ashamed to dope up or genetically enhance their muscles in public, a clear sign they can't compete on their own talent. But the definition of performance enhancement - whether it's achieved by using better equipment and training methods or changing native traits - has always been a murky area. It is getting increasingly difficult to separate real and false achievement.

We've embraced fiberglass pole vaulting poles over bamboo, larger baseball gloves and curved hockey sticks. But we were appalled by Sammy Sosa's corked bat. Even if all the bats were corked, "a baseball fan's wish to see more home runs does not - at least for now - trump their wish to preserve the integrity of the game," according to a report by the President's Council on Bioethics. The ethicists found our objections to performance-enhancing equipment are due to taste, not matters of principle.

When it comes to improving natural powers, athletes have used everything from diet to training at altitude. In perfectly legal and accepted procedures, golfers Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh underwent laser eye surgery and now have better than normal eyesight.

But it's illegal for competitive athletes to use stimulants like amphetamines for heightened attention, erythropoietin (EPO) to stimulate the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, human growth hormone and anabolic steroids to increase muscle mass.

Though not yet tested on humans, the international sports community already has regulations banning gene therapy for performance enhancement.

But as with illegal substances, it's a losing battle. Artificially created superathletes would be difficult to detect because blood and urine tests likely wouldn't work.

The President's Council on Bioethics says the important question isn't whether biotech is good or bad or whether it should be allowed. Rather, we should be asking deeper questions like, "What does and will this mean for us . . . as human beings eager to live well in an age of biotechnology?"

Like it or not, biotech is here.

"We all approve and take part in taking drugs that enhance our lives, and we applaud the (home run hitters) Barry Bonds and Mark McGwires of the world," said Friedmann, pointing out society's hypocrisy. "The science will be done, no matter what. The question is, `How do we get a grip on the implications?'"

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© 2004, Chicago Tribune Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services