A new generation of "genetically modified" athletes, whose performance has been improved by the injection of undetectable foreign DNA, could be competing at next month's Olympics, according to a controversial new book published this week.
Dr Andy Miah, a leading British scientist, argues that "gene doping" is no longer a theory but has now become a practical reality, paving the way for a new wave of Olympic cheats. He claimed that athletes had already made contact with scientists at the forefront of GM research and even predicted that the eight-second 100 metres could be achievable within a few years.
"The issue of gene doping has been debated for the last two years or so. The question has always been: 'is it now, or is it in the future?'", said Dr Miah. "We know that scientists have been approached by unnamed athletes. Without a doubt, it is possible that there could be a genetically modified athlete at the Olympic Games this year."
Dr Miah's allegations will cast yet another unwelcome shadow over preparations for the 28th modern Olympics, which begin on 14 August. Organisers, athletes and fans were shocked yesterday by claims that Marion Jones took drugs to enhance her performance at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, at which she won three gold medals. Ms Jones is one of 27 international athletes being investigated for using the previously undetectable steroid THG.
Gene doping - also an undetectable process at present - was considered by most experts to be a hypothetical threat. Many believed it would not register on the Olympic radar until the 2008 games in Beijing. As a result, Dr Miah's claims will cause the International Olympic Committee serious concern.
The gene doping process - placed on the list of banned substances and methods by the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) last year - involves the transfer of extra genes into the body to build up key areas such as muscle, tissue or red blood cells. This is usually done by injecting, or sometimes inhaling, the necessary DNA, usually "encapsulated" in a virus.
Contentiously, Dr Miah's book, Genetically Modified Athletes, argues that gene doping could be a good thing for the future of sport.
"This is something that could be very positive for sport," said Dr Miah, one of the country's leading bioethicists, with positions at Glasgow and Paisley universities. "The idea of a naturally perfect athlete is romantic nonsense. An athlete achieves what he or she achieves through all sorts of means - technology, sponsorship, support and so on. Utilising genetic modification is merely a continuation of the way sport works; it allows us to create more extraordinary performances."
These performances, Dr Miah argues, could see countless world records crumble in the next few years. "We'd expect people to perform better, run faster, jump higher and throw further than they do now. For example, a 100 metre sprint in eight seconds, I guess, could be possible."
Yesterday, Dr Olivier Rabin, the science director of WADA, said the organisation had already assigned considerable resources to fighting gene doping. "We know the principle works, and that it has already been applied in therapeutical settings," Dr Rabin said. "We also know it's going to happen in sport - when you look at the THG case you can see what some athletes are prepared to do in order to cheat and to win. Gene doping is professional malpractice and it is illegal - and that's why we're putting considerable resources into preparing to combat it."
UK Sport, the governing body for sport in Britain, said it was also looking into ways to fight gene doping.
"Gene doping is something that has been identified as a threat and research is going into it, said a spokesman."The potential benefits are obvious, but the potential side-effects are unknown."
The former Olympic 400-metre runner Mark Richardson, who was cleared of accusations that he had taken the banned substance nandrolone in 1999, yesterday said: "This is all theoretical, but you wonder how the drug testers are going to identify it. The majority of people are competing on a level playing field, but there are always a small minority who will flout the rules."
Cheating in sport: a history
Offence: British-born Hicks took a cocktail of strychnine sulphate and raw egg white before the marathon at St Louis. Despite collapsing during the race and finishing it in a stupor, Hicks won the gold medal.
Event: shot put
Nationality: East German
Offence: of the many East German athletes exposed to anabolic steroids in the 70s and 80s, she was the only one caught. After a one-year ban she won a gold at the Moscow Olympics, with a throw of 22.41m. Since random drug-testing was started, the 20m mark has rarely been passed.
Event: 100m, 200m
Olympics: 1984, 1988
Offence: smashed the women's 100 metre world record at Seoul, and won two other golds. "Flo-Jo" never failed a drugs test but when she died of heart failure at the age of 38 in 1998, many saw it as the legacy of long-term drug abuse.
Olympics: 1984, 1988
Offence: exposed as a user of the banned anabolic steroid stanazolol after winning the 100 metre final in Seoul. Johnson won the race in a world record 9.79 seconds, beating Carl Lewis. Two days later, Johnson was stripped of both his medal and the record after testing positive.
Event: 100m, 200m
Olympics: 1992, 1996
Offence: high levels of testosterone were found in Mitchell's system in 1998. The sprinter tried to justify this by claiming he got drunk and had sex with his wife four times the night before the test. The IAAF didn't believe him: he was banned for two years.