Officials fear some Olympic athletes might be altering their genes to cheat in Rio

Rio Olympics opening ceremony

Add this to your list of signs we’re living in the future: Genetically-enhanced Olympic athletes are a real thing we have to worry about now.

Sarah Everts reports for Chemical and Engineering News that officials plan to test 2016 Rio athletes’ tissue samples for markers of “gene doping” — a process that would alter their bodies’ biological programming in order to obtain an unfair advantage in competition.

Instead of adding something extra to athletes’ bodies that could (often) be easily detected, as with regular doping, gene doping would alter athletes’ genetic codes so that they would simply seem to be naturally finely-tuned for competition — as so many Olympians already are.

Doping has long been a problem at the Olympics, and it’s an especially serious concern in 2016 after an investigation uncovered a widespread state-sponsored doping scheme among Russian athletes. So far though, every athlete ever exposed as a doper used synthetic chemicals or foreign bio-agents (like other peoples’ blood) to snag an edge. No regulator has ever caught an athlete gene-cheating. But then again: No one has ever tried.

The cutting edge of cheating

As Business Insider’s Lauren Friedman reported back in 2014, it’s entirely plausible that a determined and well-financed athlete could modify their own genetics for an advantage. But the bio-hacking rule-breaker would face some serious risks.

Gene editing is definitely a thing, with the earliest research dating back decades. So far though, it’s mostly highly experimental, only used in humans to treat a few rare and severe diseases. That’s because in trials human or animal gene therapy subjects are sometimes at risk of developing cancers or other fatal disorders.

Still, gene-hacking technology has advanced to the point that rogue athletes and scientists might conceivably use it for evil.

(“Evil,” in this case, refers to marginal improvements in very strong and fast people’s capacities for strength and speed. But still.)

How gene-doping might work

The most likely subject of a genetic hack appears to be the gene that codes for a protein called EPO. So, using a new technique, that’s what officials plan to test for.

EPO increases your body’s output of oxygen-carrying red blood cells and is very hard to detect. Athletes with high EPO might boost their endurance and strength, so it’s not hard to imagine why a distance swimmer or ball player would want some of its good juice in their bodies. And some top athletes, including ’90s-era Tour de France winners, have been caught using synthetic EPO to cheat.

A genetic hack that increased an athlete’s body’s own EPO output threatens to circumvent existing tests. But now we might be able to catch even those cheaters.

Long term, the World Anti-Doping Agency also plans to examine whether athletes have altered their growth protein genes to build extra muscle.

What a wild future we’re living in.

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