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What is the role of genetics in sports?

30 July 2012
Appeared in BioNews 667

Last year, the Progress Educational Trust (PET) conducted a poll as part of its Wellcome Trust supported project 'Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity: Does It Matter Where Your Genes Come From?' At three public events held under this project's auspices, attendees were asked to suggest questions for PET to put to the public, and the resulting online poll elicited 637 responses. Most of the responses were summarised in BioNews, but this excluded the final poll questions about sport, which we wanted to consider in relation to the London 2012 Summer Olympics.

Now, with the Olympics and Paralympics finally upon us, the time has come to publish and discuss the responses to these final two questions. These questions were selected from suggestions made by the audience at PET's June 2011 event 'Genetic Medalling'. This saw panellists debate issues such as the role of genetics in athletic prowess, and whether it is at all legitimate to use the sort of biological paradigm that prompts us to anticipate a genetic contribution to sporting achievement.

The first question, 'Would you take a genetic test to reveal a hidden sporting talent?', appealed to us because it spoke to questions raised by sport and exercise geneticist Dr Alun Williams, who has had to carefully consider such issues during his work co-authoring the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences' position on 'Genetic Research and Testing in Sport and Exercise Science'.

At the 'Genetic Medalling' event Dr Williams spoke about how genetic testing in sport raises difficult ethical questions, not least in relation to children. If test results suggest that a child is likely to be a sporting achiever, will that child then be subject to undue pressure to live up to (this aspect of) their potential? Conversely, if test results suggest that a child is unlikely to be a sporting achiever, will that child then be unduly discouraged from pursuing legitimate sporting ambitions?

Dilemmas also face adults who would consider taking such a test. Will the results lead to them thinking too fatalistically about their abilities, causing them to internalise a sense of limits? Or will the results help them focus their training more productively?

If one takes such a test while harbouring no ambition to excel at sports, does one risk being left with a sense of frustration at squandered potential? Or could the results of such a test inspire someone to take up sports with renewed zeal?

Of those who responded to this poll question, 38 percent said they would take a test to reveal a hidden sporting talent, while the majority - 62 percent- said they would not.

Taking the poll question at face value, these responses reflect people's willingness to take a hypothetical test that is both valid and accurate. However, the responses may also reflect scepticism about whether such a valid and accurate test could ever exist.

While certain detectable genetic mutations undoubtedly confer physical advantages (one example being mutations in certain genes that lead to an abundance of muscle tissue), the extent to which genetics circumscribes our sporting potential - or to which, conversely, genetics can be transcended through training and will - continues to be debated.

The other sports-related question asked as part of the poll was: 'Most top sporting competitions are segregated according to sex. In your opinion, should we also segregate top sporting competitions according to other genetic differences between people?'

This question alluded to the contentious category of 'race', considered in relation to genetics as part of the broader 'Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity' project. Even if the concept of 'race' is deemed to be an imperfect (or indeed, irredeemably invalid) proxy for aspects of genetic difference or genetic variation, the question as phrased - without using the word 'race' - still stands.

Another provocative aspect of this question is its allusion to the fact 'sex' is a biological difference predicated (largely) upon a genetic difference. We are not always accustomed to thinking about sex in these terms, as sex is mediated by the more culturally contingent category of 'gender'. But it is striking nonetheless to reflect that top sporting competitions are already segregated according to a genetic difference. And it is not axiomatic that this difference is clear-cut, as became clear in 2009 when the gender of South African champion runner Caster Semenya was disputed.

Ultimately, only 7 percent of those who responded to this question thought that top sporting competitions should be segregated according to genetic differences besides sex. An overwhelming majority - 93 percent - disagreed with this idea.

This response may reflect the prevailing aversion to racial segregation, now considered a toxic notion in any area of life (sports included). But there is also a more prosaic case against segregation on the basis of genetic difference, also raised at 'Genetic Medalling'. Top competitions already seek to establish the world's greatest sportspeople within a diverse range of categories. Fragmenting those categories further, by partitioning contestants on genetic grounds beyond sex, could result in competitions that were neither lucrative for the organisers and sponsors, nor enticing for the rest of us.

So, it seems that most of you are happy with the set up of the current Olympic Games, and we hope you enjoy watching them!

17 June 2013 - by Purvi Shah 
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13 August 2012 - by Matthew Young 
The anti-doping laboratories built for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games will be developed into the world's first Phenome Research Centre; the term 'phenome' referring to the overall expression of a person's characteristics and traits as determined by the interaction of genetics and environment...
9 January 2012 - by Sandy Starr 
The Progress Educational Trust's 2011 project Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity: Does It Matter Where Your Genes Come From?, supported by the Wellcome Trust, sought to debate race and ancestry in the context of genetics and to explore the connection (or lack of connection) between genetics and the concept of 'race'...
26 September 2011 - by Sarah Norcross 
Throughout 2011 the charity that publishes BioNews, the Progress Educational Trust, has been running a Wellcome Trust supported project entitled 'Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity: Does It Matter Where Your Genes Come From?'. The project is now concluding with an online poll which we'd like to encourage all BioNews readers to complete...
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9 May 2011 - by Dr Peter J Aspinall 
The Progress Educational Trust's recent debate 'Is There a Place for Race in Biology' generated lively discussion around whether the accurate identification of genetically-distinct populations is possible or desirable. The semantic issue of whether the term 'race' in this context should be abandoned in favour of 'ethnicity', 'ancestry', or some other term was also raised...
11 April 2011 - by Dr Jess Buxton 
This evening debate, organised by the Progress Educational Trust (PET) in partnership with University College London's Genetics Institute, and supported by the Wellcome Trust, marked the launch of PET's project 'Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity: Does it Matter Where Your Genes Come From?' The first of what promises to be a very lively series of debates...
An alternative to segregation by genetic advantage. ( - 30/07/2012)
An alternative to segregating groups of athletes to avoid undue genetic advantages seen as undermining 'fairness', would be to allow atheletes that are not gifted with the 'right genetics' for their chosen sport to pursue gene therapy solutions, or indeed to actually recognise enhancement within sport  per se. We have the para-olympics and the olympics, well we can have a enhanced olympics where people can use gene splicing, novel pharma, body modification etc to see how far we can go in terms of enhancing performance.
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