Genetics and fair competition

This post is by CLB non-resident fellow, Dov Greenbaum.

Fairness and its corollary, unfair advantage, have been perennial questions at the Olympics.  The London 2012 Olympics is pushing the question of athletic advantages even further.

Oscar Pistorius, the South African double amputee, a Paralympics darling, after years of kinesiological tests and scientific arguments with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) and other relevant organizations, was finally granted the opportunity to race against his able-bodied peers in the 400m and 4X400m relay in the Olympics.  Although he did not get past the 400m semifinals, Pistorius’s runs raised numerous novel and non-trivial concerns as to the nature of enhancement and fairness in sport.

This isn’t just a philosophical question; for athletes who push to the limits of human endurance, and beyond, every advantage, real, perceived, or otherwise makes a difference.

For example, in the Vancouver 2010 games athletes at their starting blocks listened not for the sound of the starting pistol, but for an electronic tone pumped through speakers.  Why give up such an iconic component of the sport?  Turns out that athletes who were further away from the starting pistol tended to have slower start times:  It just took longer for the sound, travelling at the speed of sound  –340m/s — to reach them a couple meters down.  Every seven meters farther from the gun is another two hundredths of a second.  In the Sydney Olympics, 400m world record holder Michael Johnson’s reaction time 9 slots down tripled. To the layperson, the difference seems almost immeasurable, yet it makes a difference.

A further example of the importance of each millisecond is the recent case of sprinters Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh who tied for the final berth on the US 100m team – even the high speed camera, at 3000 frames per second, could not provide a clear winner.

While overt cases of potential advantages in professional and Olympic sport, such as Pistorius’ carbon fiber legs, are relatively rare, other instances of potential advantages are unfortunately common.  In some instances, it’s obvious, at least to the IOC, that the advantage is unfair, such as in blood doping or in the use of anabolic steroids.  In other cases, it’s not as clear-cut, including simulated high altitude training or surgery that not only repairs but enhances.

However, what is often lost in the conversation of the fairness of advantages and enhancements is the built-in and accepted unfairness in the Game; the reality that some athletes are so genetically gifted that the playing field may never be level.  Not only is this unfairness tolerated, but we often idolize those with these gifts.

Take for example Michael Phelps, now the most decorated Olympian in history.  When Phelps lost the 400m individual medley to teammate Ryan Lochte and only garnered a silver in the 200m butterfly, commentators noted that Phelps had let himself go, not training as hard and getting lax in his regimen.   Lax regimen notwithstanding, Phelps finished the Olympics with 4 golds and another silver.  One has to wonder whether Phelps’ natural gifts: his abnormally large wingspan and hands, disproportionately long torso, hyper-extendable knees, elbows and ankles, short legs, and superhuman blood lactate levels, helped him dominate in spite of the reported sub-optimal pre-Olympic training.

While the issue of genetics and sports isn’t novel – the World Anti-Doping Association has been thinking about the issues for a decade or more – a number of recent events have re-introduced interest in the subject matter.  Foremost among these is the personal genomics industry that has brought genetic correlations with human phenotypes to the masses – a by-product of being able to sequence a human genome for 1000 dollars or less, orders of magnitude down from the 3 billion dollars of a decade ago.  Not only can you test for your risk of developing Alzheimer’s or other diseases, but some companies already provide tests for determining your athletic abilities.

There are many legal, ethical, social and scientific concerns with testing athletes for genes that may or may not indicate athletic gifts.  I was the editor for a special issue [E-pub link:] of the Journal of Recent Patents in DNA and Gene Sequences that gathered together 12 teams of experts from around the world – academics and practitioners, lawyers, philosophers, entrepreneurs and research scientists – that furthers this important and timely conversation.  The articles are all freely available from the website, I think readers of the CLB blog will find them interesting.

Dov Greenbaum JD PhD

Assistant Professor (adj) Dept. of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, Yale University

Non-Resident Fellow, Center for Law and the Biosciences, Stanford Law School, Stanford University

IP Attorney, Pearl Cohen Zedek Latzer (Note: the opinions mentioned herein may not represent those of the author’s firm, clients, co-workers or associates)