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Equestrian Group Clears Way For Cloned Horses To Compete In The Olympics

A cloned foal named "ET Cryozootech Stallion" stands with Hugo Simon, Austrian former Olympic rider of "princeps" (initial donor) ET. The main equestrian organization has ended its ban on clones in the Olympics
Laurent Cipriani
AFP/Getty Images
A cloned foal named "ET Cryozootech Stallion" stands with Hugo Simon, Austrian former Olympic rider of "princeps" (initial donor) ET. The main equestrian organization has ended its ban on clones in the Olympics

Will the London 2012 Games be remembered as the last Olympics of the pre-clone era? The answer is maybe — because the group that oversees equestrian events has given its OK to allowing cloned horses to compete in the Summer Olympics.

As National Geographic reports, the Fédération Equestre Internationale once banned cloned horses from participating in the Olympics. But the group based in Lausanne, Switzerland, changed its stance this summer.

If you're thinking, "They don't clone really horses, do they?" — brace yourself, because the first successful horse cloning took place in 2003. And in 2006, NPR reported on a cloned horse in Texas. The FEI estimates that more than 110 horses were cloned in 2010.

And if that makes you think: "So why change now?" — consider that the minimum age for a horse to compete in Olympic equestrian events is 9 (2003 + 9 = 2012).

The option of cloning horses is particularly attractive to breeder and trainers, who sometimes castrate their animals to make them more trainable. But castration also takes away their long-term value as contributors to the gene pool — and keeps breeders from capitalizing on their winnings.

In fact, businesses like Cryozootech, based in France, pitch their services to breeders as a way to "clone your champions." As Horse and Country TV notes, the French company, along with Texas-based Via Gen, have been pushing for the change.

Up to now, both cloned horses and their offspring have been forbidden from equestrian events. And any cloned animal must be identified as such in their horse passport (yes, that's real).

The FEI's ban extends back to 2007, when its general assembly pronounced, "The competitive equestrian couple of horse and rider are both acknowledged as athletes by the FEI. The cloning of either with a view to competing at international level would be unacceptable to the FEI."

At the same time, the FEI said that it opposed cloning because it would undermine athletes' ability "to compete in international events under fair and even conditions."

That's precisely the phrase invoked by FEI veterinary director Graeme Cook, who told National Geographic, "Cloning was no unfair advantage."

In this at-times-overly-graphic slideshow presentation from the group's meeting in early May, it laid out the case for overturning the clone ban. Here are some of the main reasons cited:

  • The ability to keep castrated horses' genes in the gene pool;
  • The 98 percent — not 100 percent — similarity of a clone to its donor;
  • The falling price of cloning, which might even the playing field.
  • It remains unclear whether the FEI is also relaxing its ban on ... wait for it... cloned humans. As careful readers will have noted above, the ban on human clones was also part of the 2007 prohibitions, made by a group that seems to have no choice but to look far in the future.

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    Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.

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