When combined with the growing attention being paid to genetics in sports, as we argue in a new paper published in the the Australian and New Zealand Sports Law Journal, the hype and allure of embryonic gene editing is likely to create serious political and economic temptations for countries and/or parents to start “genome doping.” Countries often see performance at the Olympics as a proxy for power and influence in the international community, and as a result, those seeking to increase or maintain their political and economic status could well be driven to develop covert genome-doping programs. The same holds true for parents, even if it’s on a smaller scale, at least to start with—having a world-class athlete as a child brings fame, perhaps financial stability (depending on the sport), and pride. It will be unfathomably expensive initially, but there are very wealthy people who want to see their children succeed in competitive sports. And for decades, international sporting events have been a place where athletes and their countries and coaches have used cutting-edge science and technology in search of getting ahead of the pack. Almost 70 years ago, for instance, Soviet weightlifters and wrestlers using new testosterone supplements were able to take home eight Olympic gold medals.
But this is risky. Editing genes before pregnancy begins will be much more complicated than taking a course of hormone supplements. Athletic performance doesn’t flow from just one or two genes. Instead, hundreds or more all work in concert to create athletic potential. And whether this potential translates into performance depends on many other factors, including environment, training, nutrition, and the sheer desire to win. A handful of individual genes have known connections with athletic features such as better endurance and lower chances of injury, but scientists still have a lot to learn about how those genes work and which other genes they interact with.