Jan 29, 2015
Gene Testing

By R.J. Anderson

As you look around your locker room or playing field, the evidence of genetic advantages is everywhere. From size and body mass tendencies to speed and coordination, it seems many athletes are born with a predisposition for success in sports–many call it God-given ability. Now, a new genetic test claims to have the ability to identify at a young age whether someone has more potential as a power athlete or as an endurance athlete. However, many people are debating whether or not this type of science does young athletes and our sports culture as a whole any favors.

Boulder Colo.-based Atlas Sports Genetics recently made headlines when it announced it was offering a $149 DNA test that swabs inside a child’s cheek and along the gums, then analyzes the DNA for ACTN3, one gene among more than 20,000 in the human genome. Slate.com explains ACTN3 this way:

Roughly speaking, the more copies of the R variant of the gene you have, as opposed to the X variant, the more likely you are to excel at sports requiring power or speed. (You can be RR, RX, or XX.) A 2003 analysis of hundreds of athletes who had represented Australia at international meets found that 53 percent of the male competitors in sprinting or power events were RR–nearly twice the prevalence of this genotype in a less-athletic population sample.

After identifying a youngster’s genetic predisposition, the next step is to place that child in an environment that best trains and takes advantage of their natural gifts. It’s an area that has some folks excited about the possibilities for maximizing athletic potential. However, critics are more than a little anxious about the long-term repercussions of arranged marriages between athlete and sport based on a DNA test.

“I could see how some people might think the test would pigeonhole your child into doing fewer sports or being exposed to fewer things, but I still think it’s good to match them with the right activity,” Donna Campiglia, a parent of 2 1/2-year-old son, told the New York Times. “I think it would prevent a lot of parental frustration.”

Southern Pines Pilot columnist Gordon White is worried ACTN3 tests will only give over-ambitious, ultra-aggressive moms and dads more fuel for their competitive fires and leave their children out in the cold. He writes:

I can just see one of those obnoxious “professional parents” getting the results from Atlas Sports Genetics. These are the loud, bullying, soccer moms and dads, Little League parents and maybe even those cold hearted hockey moms in Alaska. We all know them when we hear them before we see them.

After getting the report from Atlas, a father calls his son, Aloysius, to have a talk with him.
“Son,” the proud father says, “We are going to the golf course because you are going to be a great golfer.”
“But, Dad,” replies Aloysius. “I hate golf. I want to play baseball like Derek Jeter.”
“Son,” answers the father. “You are going to play golf come hell or high water. Your ACTN3 says so. And that’s that.”
Then the father adds, “From now on your name is Tiger and not Aloysius.”

Some critics are skeptical as to how effective the testing even is. Dr. Theodore Friedmann, Director of the University of California-San Diego Medical Center’s interdepartmental gene therapy program, described it to The New York Times as “an opportunity to sell new versions of snake oil.”

“This may or may not be quite that venal, but I would like to see a lot more research done before it is offered to the general public,” Friedmann said. “I don’t deny that these genes have a role in athletic success, but it’s not that black and white.”

Dr. Stephen M. Roth, Director of the Functional Genomics Laboratory at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, has spent time studying ACTN3. He told the Times he thought the test would become popular, but that he does have some reservations about it.

“The idea that it will be one or two genes that are contributing to the Michael Phelpses or the Usain Bolts of the world I think is shortsighted because it’s much more complex than that,” he said, adding that athletic performance has been found to be affected by at least 200 genes.

In the book Sports Talent (Human Kinetics Publishers, 2001), Robert Singer, Professor and Chair of the Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences at the University of Florida, warns:

“Everybody wants to predict future athletic success based on present achievement or physical makeup. But predicting success is much more difficult than most people think.

“There are too many variables, even if certain athletes have a combination of genes that favors long-range talent. A person’s genetic makeup can be expressed in many different ways, depending on environmental and situational opportunities. Variables such as motivation, coachability, and opportunity can’t be predicted.”

Atlas does acknowledge that the test currently has its limitations, but the company claims it is a viable solution for providing guidelines to placing youngsters in sports. Atlas President Kevin Reilly told the Times:

“If you wait until high school or college to find out if you have a good athlete on your hands, by then it will be too late. We need to identify these kids from 1 and up, so we can give the parents some guidelines on where to go from there.”

Partnering with Atlas is Epic Athletic Performance, a company founded by former University of Nebraska Strength and Conditioning Coach Boyd Epley. According to the Times, Atlas plans to direct clients to Epic, and

“Mr. Epley’s goal is to build a system in the United States more like those in China and Russia, which select very young children to be athletes.”

Slate.com columnist William Saletan says this could lead to a slippery slope for our athletics culture. He writes:

Well, yes: We could match China’s output by matching its methods. But that would mean thinking more like a collective. Collectivism was at the core of American eugenics, not to mention German National Socialism. What made these movements so dangerous wasn’t just heredity worship or perfectionism, but the centralization of the perfectionist enterprise under the control of the state.

Envireugenics is less dangerous. It spreads through culture, not coercion. It doesn’t employ murder or sterilization. Instead, it relies on segregation. If your kid is RR, he goes here; if he’s XX, he goes there. We don’t tell you whether you can have a baby. We just tell you whether your baby belongs on the track team, the chess team, or the assembly line.

What’s really disturbing about this idea, in the case of ACTN3, is that it isn’t crazy. The data make a strong case that being XX really does lock you out of success at the highest levels of sprinting and power sports. From an individual standpoint, that doesn’t much matter: You can run track, play pickup basketball, and live happily ever after. But from your country’s standpoint, putting you on the track team is a waste. We need that slot for an RR kid, and we need a genetic test to find him.”

R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at
Training & Conditioning.

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