From tennis to Philip K. Dick in 500 words

19 Jul 2013

On the screen, the technology that has ruined everything always starts out with a good, even noble, single purpose: in H+ the networked implants begin life as medical aids; in Person of Interest “the machine” sprung from counter-terrorism work; in Gattaca we see real-life genetic technologies designed to eradicate disease extrapolated to the nth degree. So when the subject of tennis bio passports popped up on my Twitter timeline today, it got me thinking.

Doping is, once again, high up the news agenda, after a string of positive tests from prominent athletes, including some of the world’s fastest sprinters. Chris Froome’s performances at the Tour de France have prompted as much talk of possible drug use as they have awe and admiration. Reputations and vast amounts of money are at stake, so governing bodies are keen to be clean; in tennis the ITF says biological passports (essentially a catalogue of blood samples) will be up and running by the end of this year.

Here’s how they work, according to Dr Stuart Miller of the ITF’s Technical Centre: “An individual’s own test results in effect define their limits, in what would be acceptable and what isn’t. If those values fall outside of those individuals’ limits then you’ve got evidence of doping.”

Although he cautions that this is not the final answer to doping in sport, Dr Miller is, obviously, convinced of the merits of this system, which will involve athletes submitting to blood tests at least several times a year. “It’s a living and evolving piece of information,” Miller told The Tennis Space. “The more information you have, the better it becomes.” That’s when my ears pricked up and the IMPRINTS klaxon sounded.

Bio passports have been used in athletics and cycling for a while now. At present they have a clearly defined purpose: to try to prevent athletes from gaining a competitive advantage through drugs. For now it relies on the machinery of a governing body and the athlete’s submission to regular tests. But could it become more widespread?

Some of the markers currently used to identify blood doping are also affected by, for instance, cocaine use, and heroine use prompts change in other markers that might just as easily be monitored through blood samples. Governments are always doing battle with recreational drugs. What if they, or more likely, employers, decided to implement a version of bio passports? What if schools decided that the best way to tackle teenage drug use was to create bio passports for their pupils?

Perhaps we’ve been watching too much science fiction, but it is actually fairly easy to imagine this sort of proposal. In a competitive jobs market in neoliberal economies, employers might impose some sort of biological passport system without too much argument. And to those who did argue, there is already a trusty riposte at hand: if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Once we need bio passports to keep our jobs, why not use them to determine other things, such as who deserves health and social care? From tennis to Philip K. Dick in 500 words!