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[Julia Zakhari/The Daily Pennsylvanian

More than 24 Olympic athletes from 11 different countries were caught with banned substances floating in their bloodstreams, a consequence of the growing war on sports by the International Olympic Committee against the backdrop of an ever-lengthening menu of performance-enhancing drugs available to potential Olympians.

But although 25 percent more blood and urine samples were screened in Greece than at the Sidney games in 2000, detecting cheaters remains an uphill struggle. Testing protocols for the steroid tetrahydrogestrinone, for example, were only developed after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency received an anonymous letter containing a syringe filled with the substance, leading to a federal investigation of U.S. athletes and retroactive testing of biological samples from prior Olympic events.

Forbidding such drug use in the Olympics has immediate intuitive appeal -- winners, after all, never cheat and cheaters are not supposed to win. Unfortunately, this intuition fails if one considers the "natural" advantages some athletes bring to the starting line by virtue of their particular genetic makeup, the consequences of which mimic and, in some instances, extend beyond today's most promising high-tech designer drugs.

It is a fact that having certain genes makes you better or worse off in athletic competition. Consider the ACTN gene, which encodes a protein involved in muscle contraction. Researchers at the Sidney Institute for Neuromuscular Research have found that having one version of this gene, ACTN3, significantly improves high-intensity, short-duration muscular contraction activities, while having another version, ACTN2, improves endurance-based muscle contraction.

Genotyping of more than 100 professional Australian sprinters (32 of whom had competed at the Olympic level) showed that 72 percent possessed at least one copy of the fast-muscle ACTN3 gene, compared to only 56% of non-athlete controls. Analysis of professional endurance-based athletes (18 of whom had competed at the Olympic level) showed that 46 percent possessed at least one copy of the slower-muscle ACTN2 gene, compared to 28 percent of the sprinters. These data suggest that sprinters are better off with one version of the ACTN gene, while long-distance runners are better off with another. Most of the world possesses one copy of each and are hence caught in the middle, best fit for the average ranges of typical physical exertion.

Other genetic aberrations have been implicated in athletic success, including those that encode for erythropoietin, which is responsible for red blood cell production and consequent oxygen delivery to fatigued muscles -- Eero Maentryanta, the Finnish 1964 gold medal Olympian, had a variant of this mutation. A different gene, myostatin, is responsible for extreme muscle growth, such as the German "super baby" recently reported in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Given that these and other performance-related genes exist and are accountable, at least in part, for athletic abilities extending beyond the product of sweat and hard work, it is only reasonable to ask whether the athletes and Olympians possessing these traits should be treated as cheaters as well, as undeserving of their accolades as the blood-dopers, steroid injectors and other illicit substance users blacklisted by regulatory bodies like the IOC and USAD. If not, then it seems an implicit form of discrimination is rife throughout the sporting community, favoring those holding a winning ticket in the genetic lottery and marginalizing the rest who are dealt a bad hand. If so, then a template for the "standard genome" must be established for the purposes of comparison and evaluation to see which "abnormals" are "cheating" with their genes. The former lacks logical appeal, while the latter smacks of early 20th century eugenics.

The only viable option is changing the status-quo conception of fair competition. Current rules ignoring the contribution of genetic factors while simultaneously preventing drug-related compensatory pursuits by less genetically gifted athletes are both arbitrary and biased. This issue is likely to become more pressing as inevitable advancements in genetic engineering enable athletes to incorporate performance-enhancing genes into their respective genomes, providing the ultimate undetectable "drug" for improving athletic ability. Then the biggest question facing regulatory bodies will not be, "Who is cheating?" but rather, "Who are the cheaters?"

These concerns of the future, in tandem with ongoing genetic discrimination, suggest that the rules must be changed, to allow for both potential genetic enhancements and current performance-enhancing drugs. This view is echoed by Oxford University professor Julian Savulescu, who argues that the dictates of fair sport should only extend to matters of safety and health, and not interfere with whatever choices athletes may make to augment their inborn physical facilities.

Accordingly, athletes should be permitted to inject a drug or inject a gene as they see fit, within reasonable limits of caution. Indeed, it may be just this power of choice that invigorates athletics with the same creativity and expressivity characteristic of other human endeavors. Why should we restrict these defining aspects of human existence from sports when we uniformly encourage them elsewhere? If sheer physical prowess is all that matters, then more than a few of our neighbors from the animal kingdom should be walking/swimming/flying with Olympic medals around their necks.

Ultimately, we make the rules of sport. By distinguishing between cheating and choice, we can certainly make our rules -- and athletes -- better for the future.

Jason Lott is a first-year student in the School of Medicine from Anniston, Ala. Whole Lotta Love appears on alternate Mondays.

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