Sport, Talent Identification and The Human Genome

– Derek M. Hansen –

Recently, I have been looking at the latest research and findings related to the Human Genome project and how it would apply to the average person. There are now a number of new companies on the market that will take a sample of your DNA (through a generous saliva sample) and map your genome for a number of common diseases that are actionable (i.e. you can take preventative measures to reduce your risk factors). One company, Navigenics, will take your sample and develop your “Health Compass” to determine your “genetic predisposition for a variety of common health conditions, and the information, support and guidance to know what steps you can take to prevent, detect or diagnose them early.” The genetic testing service is provided for an initial $2,500 fee, with an ongoing subscription rate of $250 per year for continuous service.

For those of you that don’t know what a genome is, the Genome News Network provides a useful working definition:

“A genome is all of a living thing’s genetic material. It is the entire set of hereditary instructions for building, running, and maintaining an organism, and passing life on to the next generation.”


Deeper research into the human genome can theoretically give us insights into why some people die of heart disease and others die of cancer, why some people are extroverts and other people are introverts, why some people have fabulous singing voices and other people make you cringe during their karaoke renditions, and so on.

Of course, it made me think about a young person’s predisposition to various athletic abilities later in life. Lo and behold, the New York Times just came out with an article about genetic testing for young children to determine their potential for athletic greatness. The article, Born to Run: Little Ones Get Test for Sport Gene, by Juliet Macur, identifies the work by a new company, Atlas Sport Genetics, and the ongoing efforts of parents to ensure that their child is the next sports star. For a simple fee of $149 per test, parents can have their child’s DNA analyzed (through a cheek swab) in an effort to predict a their natural athletic strengths.

A study published in 2003, primarily done by Australian researchers, identified the connection between ACTN3 and elite athletic performance. The study looked at the gene’s combinations — one copy provided by each parent. The R variant of ACTN3 instructs the body to produce a protein, alpha-actinin-3, found specifically in fast-twitch muscles. Those muscles are capable of the forceful, quick contractions necessary in speed and power sports. The X variant prevents production of the protein.


This same study looked at 429 elite white athletes, including 50 Olympians. It found that 50 percent of the 107 sprint athletes had two copies of the R variant. It is important to note that no female elite sprinter had two copies of the X variant. All male Olympians in power sports had at least one copy of the R variant. Additionally, almost 25 percent of the elite endurance athletes had two copies of the X variant — only slightly higher than the control group at 18 percent — meaning people with two X copies are more likely to be suited for endurance sports.

While the DNA test performed by Atlas Sport Genetics seem simple there are many possible issues that are raised by such a process:


  • Is the test actually reliable? As we know, there are many factors that contribute to athletic superiority, including environmental factors such as coaching, training, socio-economic status, access to proper facilities, psychological preparation and even luck. In the New York Times article, Dr. Stephen M. Roth, director of the functional genomics laboratory at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health who has studied ACTN3, admitted that, “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.


  • Are we intervening where we should let nature run its course? If this one gene only serves as a minor factor in determining athletic success, will adherence to the results lead to parents taking them out of a sport where their child could still succeed? For example, research on an Olympic long jumper from Spain showed that he had no copies of the R variant, indicating that athletic success is probably affected by a combination of genes as well as environmental factors. He still had significant success despite this deficiency. Who’s to say who should stay in the talent pool and who should move on? Larry Bird was one of the top basketball players in history, but he was not know for his vertical jumping ability or his lightning-fast quickness.


  • Participation in sports isn’t just about making it to the top. We get kids involved in sport for many reasons: Health and fitness, developing coping skills, team building, meeting friends and having fun. If parents find out that their kids don’t have what it takes to be the best, or even in the top 25 percent of their peer group, will the parents shift them away from sports? We all know that only a very small percentage of athletes ever make it to the professional ranks or the Olympics. But that doesn’t discourage you from having your kids participate in all types of sports – regardless of their genetic predisposition for success.


  • All kids and parents should keep the dream alive. I think at one time in our sporting lives, all of us hoped and wished that we might one day make it in our sport. It may have become apparent as early as 14 or 15 years of age that it may not actually happen. The fact that there was a chance, however slim, made practicing and training in our sport that much easier and enjoyable. I would hate to think a child would get their hopes and dreams dashed by a test for one gene out of 20,000.

    As with all issues of child education and development, the outcome is heavily dependent on the judgement and common sense of the parents. If parents do decide to go ahead and determine the athletic predisposition of their child, one hopes that it is simply to satisfy a burning curiosity and they will take the information with a grain of salt. I assume that some will haphazardly interpret the information as a road map to success for their child and try to get a head-start with early specialization. Strangely enough, this is happening already, without the genetic information at their disposal.

    What parents really need to do to determine the chances of their child’s athletic success – just like you do with the family’s health history – is to look in the mirror and ask, “Was I fast, strong and powerful when I was an athlete?” If the answer for both father and mother was no, it’s very likely that your child may have to make their way into the headlines much like “Rudy” of Notre Dame football fame. If both parents were athletic talents, there’s a good chance your children will display some athleticism. In both cases, you might as well save yourself the $149 price tag. However, it should not change the way in which you introduce sport to your children. It should always involve a healthy dose of fundamentals, exposure to a wide range of sports and a emphasis on fun.



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