Genetic Doping in Sport

The recent Olympiad in Rio reminded me of the subject of genetic doping. There is always talk of chemical doping whenever the Olympics are held. This time the whole Russian athletics team was banned from the games because of a national doping programme in Russia, although Russia was allowed to enter other events.

Pure genetic doping is the use of gene therapy to improve athletic capability. So far there have been no reported cases. Time forbids me to go down the route of researching what WADA is doing to combat future genetic doping but I am sure the agency is working on it.

The Olympics reminded me of gene doping because it became apparent that genetic doping is probably not necessary. It would appear that a liberal approach to migration and/or a cheque book is sufficient to dope your team with world class sports genes. Look at the athletics team from Bahrain that contains no Arabs, just West African sprinters and East African distance runners. Importing genes into your talent pool is certainly a lot cheaper than building a genetic doping programme. Genetic doping is also hit and miss whereas you know what you are getting when you pay for someone to change their nationality.

Ever since Kip Keino started winning middle distance gold medals in the late sixties the writing was on the wall for white distance running athletes. Would Britain have won another distance medal after Coe, Ovett and Cram if it had not been for the good fortune of a Somalian falling into the laps of the British Olympic Association (BOA)? With Kenya having hundreds of distance runners superior to any white runner, many western nations open their cheque books and add Kenyans to their teams.

When it comes to the Olympics the biggest race of all is the one to the top of the medal table. The BOA with its lottery money has become very adept at channelling funds to where there is potential for medal success. So much so that only the mighty US economy could prevent Great Britain from heading the table. Where there is no talent no funds are given and so Great Britain doesn't compete in sports such as water polo, basketball or volleyball.

Professional sports leagues around the world have been importing talent for decades. You only have to look at basketball's NBA in the US or England's Premier League to see the corporatisation of sport. Club sport has been "genetically doping" for years. Would the English Premier League be what it is if we turned the clock back to the 1970s where the only "exotic" players came from Scotland or Ireland?

People pay to see the best, which attracts money in the form of sponsorship and bidding for television rights. The result is a National Basketball Association that is less national and the English have only a 30% representation in the Premier League.

In one way this is good because I always feel a little uneasy when flags are waved and anthems played at sporting events. During the recent Euro 2016 soccer championship I waited until the scheduled kick-off before watching a game so that I could avoid the cringing anthems. Why do they bother? Portugal, the winners of this years event, has had its fair share of Brazilian and African players, Germany has its Turkish genetic compliment, France with North African genes and England with West Indian genes.

It would appear that genetic doping is not necessary in this modern globalised world. The television screens are full of images challenging our idea of what a nation is. Politicians (and their wealthy corporate backers) tell us that global markets and free movement of labour are important. If you want the best sports team then you buy talent in from across the globe.

So why bother with national teams in the Euros or the Olympics? Why not change the UEFA European Championship into a European leagues championship. England might then have a chance of winning if they fielded a team consisting solely of continental Europeans (only to lose to Spain in the final every four years).

What is the point of telling us that nationalism is so 20th century but every four years we have the Olympics or the Euros? George Orwell is quoted as having said that "sport is war minus the shooting". Whilst the USA and China tiptoe around the South China Sea and avoid direct conflict, they can battle for supremacy of the gold medal table in the Olympics. In the past, the Soviet Union was the Olympic foe of the United States. Now, with Russia being (if only slightly) less autocratic and caring a little more for the needs of its people there is less money to be spent on sport. In Russia sport has to depend on wealthy oligarchs or good old fashioned chemical doping for success.

The US has its collegiate sports system churning out gold medalists, Team GB has its targetted lottery money and China its command economy. So how do other nations catch up, if chemical doping brings shame upon you and you are either not wealthy enough or big enough a country to have the talent?

Whilst some will argue against the ethics of genetic manipulation at the chromosome level, is genetic manipulation on the citizenship level any different? When Mo Farah wins gold for Britain in the Olympics would he have done so if he had no East African genes? And when he soon retires do we make do with genetically British runners again or do we cast the net far and wide?

It is a difficult question to answer. Should the IOC say that only people born in the country they represent can participate? What if, through no fault of their own, people end up living in another country. Maybe their parents moved when they were an infant. But flagrantly buying up talent from around the globe does leave a bad taste in the mouth. Would people still watch the Olympics if we did away with national teams and just invited the best athletes from around the globe to attend?

The paralympics has a coding system so that various types of paraplegics enter a particular event so, for example, there are many sprint finals for people in wheel chairs, amputated legs or for the blind. Maybe a future Olympic games will have events for indigenous, chemically doped, genetically altered and non-country of origin competitors.

I am not sure if this will have any affect on sports trading. Maybe you would have to factor in "imports" if a sport's governing body was to change their rules to allow "corporate" rather than national teams (an example of which is the UCI running a trade team time trial but a national individual time trial at the cycling World Championships). If you are betting on how many gold medals Great Britain will win in the Olympics you would have to account for genetic imports too.