Living in the bay area with two school-aged sons, you’d think the news that Barry Bonds broke the all-time home run record would have been a big deal in our house. It wasn’t. My kids focused on the steroids instead of home run number 755.
This got me to thinking about fair and unfair advantages in sports. Very few people would argue that Barry Bonds was playing fair if he really took steroids so he could hit the ball farther. Or that bike riders in the Tour de France were playing fair by blood doping. But what if someone has bigger muscles or is blood doped naturally? What would be fair or unfair then?
The reason I got to thinking about this was that there actually was a case in sports of natural blood doping. The idea behind blood doping is that you can increase your endurance by increasing your number of red blood cells. One way to do this is to get a blood transfusion. Another way is by taking the hormone EPO.
EPO is a natural hormone that tells blood stem cells to make more red blood cells. EPO does this through a protein called the EPO receptor. And like any protein, the instructions for making the EPO receptor are found in a gene.
Back in the 1964 Winter Olympics, there was a Finnish cross-country skier named Eero Mantyranta. Eero won two gold medals so easily that people thought he must be cheating. But he wasn’t.
Eero had more red blood cells than the average person because of a small change in his EPO receptor gene. His version of the EPO receptor thought that EPO was always around so his body kept cranking out new red blood cells. He was genetically blood doped.
Now imagine that Eero is a bike rider in the Tour de France. He would have naturally higher levels of red blood cells and so would be like those bike riders who were blood doping using EPO. Except the judges couldn’t disqualify Eero for EPO use because he wasn’t using it.
Now imagine a ball player with a certain version of the myostatin gene. When this gene isn’t working right lots of animals including mice, dogs, cows, and people all develop large muscles. Should this myostatin-challenged player be allowed to compete? Or should other players be able to take steroids to level the playing field?
Of course this takes us down a slippery slope. Many athletes have versions of genes that make them run faster, gain more muscle mass, have better endurance. Should those of us not lucky enough to get these genes be able to compensate by taking the right medicines? Or using gene therapy to get the same genes? Is sports competition more about working hard, drive, and determination or the luck of the genetic draw? Or both?
Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA.