The future of sport: Should we allow genetic enhancements?
It’s always nice to have your gut feelings challenged, and that’s exactly what happened to me over the course of the closing discussion of this year’s FutureFest, entitled simply: “Achilles or Proteus: Should humans be enhanced in sport?”
“No,” was my gut reaction going in, “what a ridiculous question. Next!” If you allow athletes to have cybernetic modifications, then you may as well race modified Henry Hoovers, or accept that the Olympics will inevitably become more akin to Robot Wars than a simple test of human strength, stamina, heart and willpower. But, as someone of limited athletic ability myself, perhaps the best thing to do was to resort to my default sporting position and sit this one out.
“Sport has never been fair, so to quibble on terms of equality is entirely pointless”
Nonetheless, I was keen to hear from the professionals, and there to argue the points were Professor Andy Miah and Tony Strudwick, in a discussion moderated by Phoebe Moore. Miah is chair in Science Communication & Future Media at the University of Salford, and is soon to publish a book exploring the future of sports, tracking 15 years of technological changes. Strudwick, on the other hand, has seen these changes firsthand in his work as head of performance at Manchester United Football Club.
The first step in forcing me to rethink my instinct was to challenge my naive preconceived notions about sport, which were deeply ingrained over 13 years of comprehensive school education. Namely, by pointing out that the whole thing has never been fair, so to quibble on terms of equality is entirely pointless. As Strudwick explained during his opening statement, this is a romantic view not really born out by reality. “Ethically when we talk about sport philosophically, we all like to think we’re competing on an even keel, but finances, ideas and technology really dissipate that,” he explained.
Miah was even more unequivocal, arguing that the notion that we’d somehow be in a fairer place without enhancements was “completely wrong”. He went on to explain that rather than entrenching current unfair advantages, allowing enhancement technologies could actually level the playing field. “At the moment, the world of elite sport is reliant on some people having something and others not having it, and that advantage is often what leads to winners and losers. If we allow people to use more, and make it more open, you’ll get more equal opportunities if not equal results,” he argued.
“Sports can and will change, so our notion of what’s fair and what’s not will change with that.”
Whether or not enhancements would lead to more fairness is debatable, but the flexibility of sporting rules is not. “The future of sport has to be rewritten by our contemporary values,” Miah argues, highlighting Formula E’s unprecedented “FanBoost” rules (fans can literally divert power to their favourite drivers through social media support) as evidence that things can change based on spectator tastes. “If the Olympics Games were designed today, you wouldn’t have the separation between Olympic and Paralympic, and in many sports you wouldn’t have a separation between men and women.”
“Sports can and will change, so our notion of what’s fair and what’s not will change with that,” he added.
But how far away are we from a world where this modification is a reality? In a basic sense, we’re there already with the use of technology allowing us to make micro-gains in rowing or to track player movements in rugby. “We, like many Premier League clubs, are looking at around 10,000 data points per week with our players – everything from running stride to sleep patterns,” explains Strudwick. “What they buy into is quite full on,” he adds, although these data points aren’t a direct replacement for coaching and a good human eye. “Overreliance on data decisions alone can lead to issues as much as an intuitive component can lead to mistakes.”
“Can I see a future where enhanced athletes compete against non-enhanced athletes? Absolutely. Why not?”
It’s not just data either. A decade ago, stories began to emerge of Premiership footballers saving their children’s umbilical cords for the rejuvenative powers of the stem cell, which is a whole separate can of ethical worms. “Within that example, there are ethical questions about the authority of the parent to utilise the blood that comes from the cord,” argues Miah. “Who owns that blood? Who has the entitlement to utilise it? And what are the reasonable purposes for which it can be put?”
“These things are technically feasible – we can do these things today. But there’s no resolution about morality or acceptability. If we’re comfortable with using blood in that way, then fine, but this is a present-day issue that society hasn’t yet resolved. How far are we prepared to use technology to enhance athletic performance?”
And if we as a society decide that we are happy with that, we can go further still. As our scientific knowledge increases, we don’t have to settle on using data to track athletic achievements – we could test to see what they might potentially achieve. “Do we go down that route of genetic testing? Do we make a pre-selection based on genotype?” asks Strudwick. “If we pre-select at a young age, is that really ethical?”
“Are we looking at these young athletes as assets or are we looking at them still as potentially talented children? That kind of tension has to be played out.”
“As our scientific knowledge increases, we don’t have to settle on using data to track athletic achievements – we could test to see what they might potentially achieve”
But even within these ethical questions, there are further dilemmas. “Where genetic testing exists, they aren’t sufficiently reliable to tell you what someone’s future is going to be like, so to punish someone on the basis of these results is unreasonable,” explains Miah. “Say you have a certain risk for which there is a test, and I have a risk for which there is no test, it’s already unfair to test you when you can’t test me.”
As for what vision of a sporting future we opt for, Strudwick is clear that – to a degree at least – it’s within our own hands. “Can I see a future where enhanced athletes compete against non-enhanced athletes? Absolutely. Why not? [But] it won’t be for me to decide that, it will be for the spectator.”
That spectator won’t be Miah, however, who thinks that “only the enhanced will be worth watching” if that’s the path we take. “This future where we have games with enhanced and not enhanced just won’t happen – we will only be interested in those that are transcending human limits through technology.”