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Reproduced with permission of LexisNexis Malaysia Sdn Bhd.

By Richard WeeFatin IsmailKimberly Chan and Tee Jae Ei

In a previous article Deep Dive into Gene-Editing, we have given a brief but concise overview of Gene-Editing in animals, plants and even humans. This article now, will focus mainly on the ethical conundrum that arises from the use of Gene-Editing in Sports to boost the performance of athletes.


In 2012, a team of scientists discovered the possibility of editing a person’s genes by a method referred to as CRISPR-Cas9. Effectively, this method of editing an individual’s genes serves three purposes, which includes therapy, prevention and enhancement. This phenomenon raises a number of legal and regulatory issues. What is the legal extent of gene editing? Should this process be regulated, and if yes, by whom?

Gene-Editing in humans is important in terms of prevention, treatment and new strategies for diagnosis of human disease. This form of Gene-Editing is also what can be used for Gene Doping in Sports. Gene Doping has also been defined by The World Anti Doping Agency (‘WADA’) as the non therapeutic use of cells, genes, genetic elements, or modulation of gene expression, having the capacity to enhance athletic performance. Of course, there are a multitude of issues, including moral and ethical, that arise from Gene Doping in Sports.


One major risk of gene doping in sports is that it cannot be ‘switched off’ as the alteration is not medicinally induced with drugs like traditional sports doping. This poses a risk where an athlete may potentially overdose but with no regulatory system to turn it off. These genetic enhancements cannot be as tightly regulated as other processes.


The first issue that arises is obviously whether Gene Doping is ‘correct’. WADA’s stance on Gene Doping is that it ‘represents a threat to the integrity of sport and the health of athletes’.1 WADA has also declared it illegal in sports and is currently heavily involved in the process of detection of Gene Doping in Sports. This stands true to WADA’s primary role which is to develop, harmonise and coordinate anti-doping rules and policies across all sports and countries.

However, due to the nature of gene editing that ‘edits’ the gene, this would be incredibly difficult to detect. An athlete with ‘edited’ genes would potentially look the same as an incredibly talented athlete. The gene product would seem no different than naturally produced protein making it much harder to detect by current methods compared to an injected or ingested substance. This gives a lot of room for potential abuse by athletes looking to enhance themselves all for the sake of glory and wealth that accompanies athletes’ success in sports.

Furthermore, in order to detect Gene Doping, the authorities would have to undergo a very elaborate and expensive method of obtaining a record of the athlete’s genetic history from birth. Every single change to the genes can be compared to those records. However, there is an obvious loophole to this, as genes can also be ‘edited’ at the conception stage.


The regulation of Gene Doping in sports would definitely be a massive hurdle. To put it into perspective, there are some individuals who rely on Gene Editing as a treatment for illnesses. They need Gene Editing to simply live. What would then happen, if these bona fide individuals, happen to land themselves in competitive sports and do extremely well. Would they also be banned? On the other hand, there could be dishonest individuals who knowingly undergo gene doping with the intent of getting an upper hand and claiming to be doing it in good faith.

They are no different than many athletes who are born with genetic mutations making them naturally talented in certain sports. For instance, Finnish Nordic skier and 1964 Olympic gold medallist Eero Mäntyranta had unusually high amounts of red blood cells.2 Would this mutation, that was nobody’s choice, prevent them from competing? Furthermore, there is the fact that professional golfers undergo laser eye surgery to enhance their vision. Would this then be considered as doping?

There is a fine line between gene doping to give athletes an upper hand and athletes who are naturally and genuinely born with an upper hand. WADA would definitely have to come up with airtight guidelines to regulate the use of Gene Doping in Sports.


It is only a matter of time until the new generation of athletes is born. If parents are allowed to genetically modify their babies even before conception, we could have a whole new generation of athletes whose genes have already been edited. The regulation of gene doping should come now and not later when matters have already spiraled out of control.


  1. Gene Doping – World Anti Doping Agency <> accessed on 29 July 2022.
  2. M Schuelke, KR Wagner, LE Stolz et al, ‘Myostatin mutation associated with gross muscle hypertrophy in a child’ (2004) 350(26) N Engl J Med 2682–2688.

Published on 20 October 2022


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