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Gene Doping – The New Frontier of Doping

2008 May 11
by Phil Miller

This morning’s Kansas City Star has an interesting piece on the new frontier of doping: gene doping. The whole article is worth a read, but here are the opening paragraphs.

Scientists have seen the future of sport. It involves mice that can lift three times the average, humans who can run 90-minute marathons, and ligament tears that can be fixed by injection.

It is genetic engineering, therapy and doping, and it is the arrival of the bionic athlete. At the extreme, this is either the advancement or end of the human race. At the minimum, it is the unavoidable change to the way our sports — baseball, football, the Olympics, you name it — are played.

One thing that the article mentions is that the genetic doping is a way for the human body to exceed its natural athletic capacity.

If confined to natural training, elite athletes are said to be now using 99 percent of their natural physical capacity, compared to just 75 percent in 1896, the year of the first modern Olympics. Given those parameters, academics say there would be no new world records after the year 2060.

But that’s in a world with no genetic engineering. Scientists think a series of gene-doping breakthroughs could boost endurance by up to 10 percent and, according to one study, allow a runner to complete a marathon in 90 minutes — more than a half-hour faster than the current world record.

In an absolute sense, doping should generate more interest from fans as athletes get bigger, stronger, and faster. But I wonder if there is diminishing marginal utility on the point of view of fans. “Wow, Brady Jones has hit his 500th home run that traveled more than 600 feet. Big deal!” Does the display of athletic talent get so extreme that fans are no longer all that excited (all else equal)?

Another interesting issue is what happens to the supply of athletic talent in team sports. Assuming a safe type of genetic doping is found that increases the human capacity to run, jump, etc., this should increase the supply of talent, leading to lower salaries “per unit of talent.” And what of competitive balance? If the number of teams stays more or less constant, competition should become almost perfectly balanced, non?

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