Doping in sport. Three very divisive words which continually dominate the headlines globally. Whether it is the Russian Athletic Federation, Ben Johnson, or Lance Armstrong, sporting history is littered with stories of athletes going beyond the boundaries of what is legally acceptable.
Science has been at the forefront, with millions invested to try and get every inch out of performance. But how much of a role should it play in sport?
In recent years, human science has come on in leaps and bounds and none more so than in terms of human genetics after the human genome was first mapped in only 2003. Understanding and deciphering the human gene has huge implications for the medical world, including the potential treatment of a number of genetic disorders and illnesses.
But with this, there are always opportunists, with the world of elite sport performance certainly including these people. By this, I don’t just mean for gene doping, but also in genetic testing for talent identification. In a way, it is a similar concept to the current use of psychometric, predictive tools only in determining what careers or types of education a person or child may be suited to, now and in the future. An additional application of genetic mapping, with significant scientific validity, is to enhance understanding of athlete susceptibility to illness and injury.
But where do we stop? How far is too far? How does this impact an athlete’s life in sport and beyond? And how would we feel about similar practices in other areas of life?
Let me cut straight to the point.
Genetic testing for talent identification is unethical, irrespective of the fact that there is still insufficient scientific basis for it, with low predictive power. Children should be given the right to an open future, to make their own decisions and especially not be subject to testing when they are too young to comprehend the consequences.
Additionally, it fails to consider environmental factors and personal motivators, with connections here to future performance almost impossible to make. These aren’t just my views, but the views of many in the athlete world, including concerns raised in a recent research article published by the Australian Institute of Sport.
However, there is validity in testing established elite athletes’ predisposition to injury and illness, which has a more stable scientific base and can be used to help modify and adapt training loads for individuals to ultimately help manage performance. As a strength and conditioning coach, I can certainly see the benefit, given that this goal is almost line one of the job description.
Of course, this should only be done with the athlete’s express permission, when they are fully aware of the associated issues, through qualified medical practitioners with results and information not to be misused or given to the wrong individuals who are not qualified to interpret results. As can be seen, it is still not without great controversy.
Applications and implications
The unfortunate progression of this science is that it is illegal abuse for the sake of performance; unfortunately, there will still be those athletes and organisations who to try to outrun the governing bodies in terms of scientific knowledge, advancements and application, to both enhance performance and avoid doping detecting. However, this should not mean legitimate genetic research should be prevented, which has the potential to benefit the wider community. Further research would also have the potential to help develop detection strategies for gene doping.
This then raises the questions around what should happen to those athletes who get caught? What impact does it have on their life, their relationships, their physiology, their future careers? We hear the high-profile stories, but what about those who don’t have the profile and are left to deal with the aftermath, when all they may have been doing was following directives from trusted coaches, medical and support staff? Do future potential employers just see you as that drug cheat, untrustworthy and unreliable?
At the recent Crossing the Line Summit on athlete transition, former Tour de France cyclist Joerg Jaksche, spoke of how when he now goes for jobs, the main question he always gets asked is, “Aren’t you the bloke that was the whistle-blower on drug cheating in cycling?” But instead of this being perceived as a good thing, it raises scepticism about his loyalty and integrity.
Joerg was implicated in the 2006 Operacion Peurto, where, whilst initially denying his involvement, not just confessed to doping, but then spoke openly to German police and the UCI about the widespread systematic doping programmes of several professional cycling teams.
Let’s Get Physical
Aside from this, there is the lack of understanding of the medical consequences. As a science, if it is being stated that ‘research is ongoing and much more is required’, the dangers of application, by those not necessarily qualified to do so, with uncertain short-term and long-term outcomes, are extremely high, let alone reckless. What damage are we doing to these athletes’ health?
Gene doping is not only the newest form of doping, but its harms are not known yet. The fear is that athletes might not wait for gene therapy to be fully developed and tested before misusing it. Again, as referenced in the AIS article, it is unethical to attempt genetic modification on elite athletes with the aim of achieving performance gains as genetic modification for this purpose is unsafe, given the lack of any appropriate clinical trials of such procedures.
Then are also mental health implications, with the scrutiny, pressures and stigmas that will now follow them around – this may happen irrespective of whether the athlete was caught or not. Dealing with demons of past indiscretions in silence, must no doubt be tough. Not to mention relationship stresses, with those that get caught, having to return disgraced to family and friends, to hometowns and countries.
The implications are multi-faceted and any athlete who does dope needs to understand not just the consequences of getting caught, but also the risks of simply engaging in the activity.
Athletes themselves of course have to take responsibility for themselves, and many of those caught doping or cheating would have done it freely and of their own accord, and it may very well have been their decision to do it. They would also potentially be taking their life into their own hands, due to the uncertainty of the effects both short- and long-term. Athletes are capable of making their own decisions and they should be treated as such, but it is very complex and tricky issue, well beyond the bounds of this opinion piece.
Life after sport
Instead, let me return to the concept I raised earlier of genetic testing for talent identification. The same can be applied to other areas of life, including when athletes are determining career and study options – an area which we at The Final Whistle of course have an interest, but has relevance to this topic. For a number of years, many tools have been used, psychometric or otherwise, to predict what career and study options and individual should do. Whilst they are certainly useful, they can often neglect environmental factors and internal personal motivators…sound familiar?
Tools should be used to guide the conversation, not be a sole predictor. For example, using psychological tests with algorithmically-determined results as a tool alone to govern decision-making about prospective employment, careers, study options or performance is not getting the whole picture and should be used to help manage the individual’s own interests and thoughts. Yet, many companies still use this as a decisive factor when differentiating between candidates.
As we have noted from above, if it is unethical to pigeon-hole a person in an athletic sense based on their genetic makeup, then surely the same applies to guiding people on their career and study options, based off a narrow set of parameters? Should we not be using such tools to help the person themselves make informed, educated decisions about what THEY want to do, to help start the conversation, give them personal responsibility and are not just telling them they are this person or that person.
Like in genetic testing, whilst it can be a great tool in managing workload or how career education can be applied, the information should not be misused or interpreted incorrectly to unduly influence future decision-making.
This is by no means to say that these tests and tools do not have their place, but that they should not be the only governing factor. A more holistic approach is certainly recommended. For example, at The Final Whistle we advocate to use tools to help guide decision-making on careers beyond sport. Equally important is seeking out work experience or internships, networking, employment and raising awareness of the different types of study options available. Similarly, in sport, there should not just be one thing that leads to desired performance. To help nurture and harness natural ability, there is specialist coaching, S&C, medical support, sports scientists (hopefully honest ones!), nutrition, even genetic testing to help manage load and injury prevention.
Now take an athlete who is caught doping. They would be forced to deal with the consequences as an individual and will be treated as if they are capable of making their own decisions. Exactly the same applies to helping choose a life beyond sport. Athletes are capable of making their own decisions about their future and should be supported to do so.
Genetic testing and research looks to be the future, but brings its fair share of controversy; at present, the line between unethical and ethical is blurry to say the least. Hopefully, through more holistic approaches, just like in life after sport, better outcomes can be achieved. But when the prizes are so great, resisting the temptation to cross that line, no matter how blurry, is going to be the greatest test.