Gattacca by 2022? China to select Winter Olympics athletes by their genes
Sporting hopefuls will have to undergo whole genome sequencing as part of preparations by the host nation
China’s athletic hopefuls for the 2022 Winter Olympics will have to undergo genetic screening for a chance to represent the host nation.
China has unveiled plans to establish a laboratory standard for the “selection of athletes by genetic markers,” according to a document posted by the Ministry of Science and Technology.
Athletes with the potential to represent the country in the Games will have to undergo whole genome sequencing, the process that determines a person’s complete, unique DNA profile.
“Complete genome sequencing will be applied on outstanding athletes competing in the winter games for speed, endurance and explosive force, with at least 300 athletes in each group,” said the document, jointly drafted by the ministry, the Beijing Organising Committee for the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, and other government agencies earlier this year.
The large-scale genetic profiling, screening and analysis work will be carried out by the General Administration of Sport of China, the Ministry of Education and the Chinese Academy of Sciences from now through 2020.
The project’s budget has not been disclosed.
Athletes are usually selected through competitions and trials and there have been no reports of other countries using similar genetic testing for their sportsmen, though some are conducting research on similar topics.
For instance, Australian scientists, with approval from the Australian Institute of Sport, have “genotyped” more than 400 elite white athletes from 14 sport categories. Fifty of them had competed in the Olympic Games. The United States and Europe have also conducted similar studies, though none publicly used the results for athlete selection.
Genes are closely related to sporting aptitude. The ACTN3 and ACE genes, for example, influence the type of fibre that makes up muscles and have been linked to strength and endurance, according to the US National Library of Medicine.
Some studies suggest that genetic factors underlie 30 to 80 per cent of the differences among individuals in traits related to athletic performance.
Some gene-related illnesses, like heart disease, could also affect an athlete’s competitiveness, although symptoms may not appear in the early stages of their careers.
A government researcher, speaking anonymously because of the issue’s sensitivity, said genetic testing could pick up factors which would otherwise be missed.
“The selection of an athlete today is largely based on a coach or coaches’ experience. They also consider conventional benchmarks such as track records and recent performance. But even the best coach makes mistakes,” the researcher said.
“Some kids have almost perfect physical examination reports but there is a ticking bomb in their genes. If it goes off it can take away money, years of effort – and even life,” he added.
Wang Huan, a researcher with the China Institute of Sport Science in Beijing, said she opposed using genes to decide who enters the Chinese national team.
“Every person is born with the right to participate in sports,” said Wang, who is not involved in the Olympic testing.
“Each individual has their advantages and disadvantages. The spirit of sport is to overcome weakness and fight for the best.
“People should not be judged by the way they were born, but what they strive to become.”
But Jiaxue Gene, a private company based in Changping District, Beijing, said the Chinese government was already using its technology to screen for sports-related genes.
“The national sports teams and coaches have contacted Jiaxue Gene to screen for students with the highest training potential through the company’s genetic decoding technology,” the company said in a statement on its website.
With a couple of oral swabs or less than five millilitres of blood, the company claimed, it could provide reliable analysis with professional recommendations. The website does not disclose the fee for the service.
This month the company was awarded an official certificate to provide commercial services for the screening of sports-related genes by the municipal government of Beijing, according to the Beijing Municipal Science and Technology Commission.
The company said it was not involved in the Winter Olympics programme and declined to respond to queries from South China Morning Post.
Gene doping – using drugs or other methods to enhance, suppress or manipulate genes to boost performance – has been banned by international sports authorities, including the Olympic committee.
Since 2016, Olympic athletes have been tested for genes different from their own.
But the Games do not ban the testing of genes to ensure the most genetically inclined athletes are selected to compete.
Some European soccer clubs have reportedly used genetic screening technology to evaluate the risk of muscle damage for individual players.
Because some DNA variants could be related to muscles that are less resistant to inflammation, team doctors may be able to develop more effective ways to treat or prevent injuries.
Zhou Weiai, another researcher at the China Institute of Sport Science, said that genetic screening in athlete selection is different from gene doping. There is no consensus in the sporting community whether it should – or should not – be done.
“Using this technology to improve competitiveness is becoming a trend,” he said.
But Zhou believed that even if China adopted genetic testing for its athletes, this did not mean it would definitely use the information to determine exactly who would qualify for the next Winter Games.
More than 150 different sports-related variants in human genes have been identified over the decades, but the significance of most of them have not been identified.
Most scientists believe that a large number of genes are involved in determining an athlete’s performance, with each making only a small contribution.
“I think the plan is mainly for research purposes. Whether to implement it or not will take more careful consideration,” Zhou said.
“The use of this technology must be regulated by law, which does not exist at present,” he added.
Zhou also warned that the screening might challenge the spirit of the Olympic Games.
The Olympics motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius, which is Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. It was proposed by Pierre de Coubertin upon the creation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894.
There is a less formal, but also well-known, motto introduced by Coubertin: “The most important thing is not to win but to take part.”