Imagine lining your athletic 10-year-old up for a blood test to determine which sport she will be assigned to train in – and then expected to excel at during the next Olympic games.
Forget Own the Podium. This dystopic hoax-y sounding scenario is apparently the medal-chasing plan of the Uzbekistan Olympic Committee, according to a piece on the Atlantic online, originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
A team at the genetics lab at the country’s Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry have been studying the genes of their top-tier athletes for the past two years looking for 50 genes that can help identify future champions, according to the piece.
The hope is to implement testing of kids in early 2015 in sports including soccer, swimming, and rowing, Rustam Muhamedov the director of the lab told the government-owned Pravda Vostoka newspaper. It is reportedly the first time “any country’s Olympic Committee has been officially linked to a program using genetic tests to recommend specific sports programs for children.”
In the piece, David Epstein, the author of The Sports Gene, says beyond the ethical issues involved, the science isn’t as predictive as Muhamedov says it is.
The Australian rugby team, for instance tested players for the ACTN3 gene, linked to “fast-twitch” muscle fibers used in sprinting and jumping.
“If you don’t have the so-called ‘right version,’ you’re just not going to be in the Olympic 100-metre final. That’s just a fact,” he said in the piece. “So that has a little predictive power. But that only rules out one of seven billion people on Earth. So it’s an incredibly poor predictor. You would have a better prediction by using a stopwatch and timing someone,” Epstein continued. “So they actually gave up those efforts because they realized that, while they are interesting for research, they are useless for selection. Most federations have realized it would be crazy to apply this to children at a younger level.”
This latest development is only the most recent focus of hand-wringing. In the United States, commercially available genetic tests try to lure sports-crazed parents into spending yet more money on their kids pursuits. When Epstein’s book came out in 2013, New Yorker writer Reeves Wiedeman keyed in on another of Epstein’s conclusions about the dead-end nature of genetic sports testing.
“Barring the creation of super athletes from a pool of genetic material – the stuff of Cold War-era movies about East German sports – your kids are stuck with what you can give them. The odds of any human possessing something approaching the perfect set of athletic gene variants, according to Epstein, is less than one in a quadrillion. He writes: ‘It’s as if we’ve all played genetic roulette over and over, moving our chips around, winning sometimes and losing other times, all of us gravitating toward mediocrity.’”
And now it’s up to us to figure out whether to embrace that mediocrity – or to continue to dig for the perfect slalom, mogul or luge gene.