Using Genetics to Find Future Olympians… Was this Inevitable?

Friday, January 17, 2014. Author Dr Dan Reardon

Could children in the future be subjected to Genetic Testing to identify athletes?

We have long known that people would start to become curious about the potential to use genetics testing to identify genetically gifted youngsters who could be nurtured as potential Olympians. It’s one thing knowing this could happen, yet it’s a different thing knowing that it is happening. It has been reported that Uzbekistan is using genetics to find future Olympians. Now I should point out that it’s highly unlikely that Uzbekistan is the first country to do this, but it’s certainly a bold move to be telling people that this is part of your programme.

Rustam Muhamedov, director of the genetics laboratory at Uzbekistan’s Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry, announced the program for ‘sports selection at the molecular genetic level’ on 5th January in the government-owned Pravda Vostoka newspaper.

He said in an interview that the program, overseen by Uzbekistan’s Academy of Sciences, would be ‘implemented in practice’ in early 2015 in cooperation with the National Olympic Committee and several of the country’s national sports federations—including soccer, swimming, and rowing.

Genetic testing is fascinating and absolutely allowed; there is nothing wrong with that, and there is a huge amount of evidence and understanding about a number of genes and their effects on performance. It’s these genes that we analyse at FitnessGenes™ to guide training, nutrition, and the use of supplements. But selecting athletes based on genes will certainly have a mass of ethical implications.

Countries have historically got into trouble for genetics-related issues, such as gene doping. Gene doping is defined by the World Anti-Doping Agency as ‘the non-therapeutic use of cells, genes, genetic elements, or of the modulation of gene expression, having the capacity to improve athletic performance’. The target genes for gene doping have included myostatin, EPO, IGF-1 and VEGF, because they are so highly implicated in performance. As an aside, FitnessGenes™ is now testing for these genes in the new gene runs and we’ll be releasing the results and packages to customers in the coming months. But just as gene doping carries a lot of ethical considerations—as well as the fact it is banned—so will genetically selecting athletic children.

David Epstein, the author of The Sports Gene, doubts Muhamedov’s claims that genetic tests can accurately identify future world-champion athletes.

“Actually, it doesn’t make much sense to do it at the genetic level at this point. What they are trying to do is learn about someone’s physiology. If you want to learn about someone’s physiology, you should test their physiology instead of the genes,” Epstein says.

Epstein says Uzbekistan’s program is the first time he has heard of genetic tests on children to try to predict their future athletic abilities. “I’ve heard of other countries working with geneticists with adults.

There was an Australian rugby team testing players for one gene called ACTN3 that codes for a protein found only in fast-twitch muscle fibers—the kind for sprinting and jumping. If you don’t have the so-called ‘right version,’ you’re just not going to be in the Olympic 100-meter final. That’s just a fact,” he says.

But Torbjorn Tannsjo, a philosophy professor at Stockholm University who specializes on the ethics of genetic science, says he sees no moral problems with Uzbekistan’s genetic-testing plans. “To me, this sounds like the most innocuous application of genetic technology to sport,” he says.

So was it inevitable that this would eventually start to happen? Well, we all know that the world in talent selection is pretty cut-throat, and scouts are looking for better ways to identify the best athletes at a young age. Sports teams are looking to put maximum time and effort into youngsters that will yield the biggest rewards in the long run. At this stage, whilst I would say that it is entirely inevitable that this would happen, I would question the ethics of whether it is right!

At FitnessGenes™, it is not our prerogative to tell you that you have great genes or not. Our goal is to use your genes to guide you better towards your goals!

Best Wishes



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