Will genetic testing soon completely alter the sporting landscape?

Elite athletes are being identified early and with the advent of genetically modified embryos, nothing may be sacred anymore

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 March, 2017, 2:50pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2018, 11:06am

We are all laboratory experiments, in one form or another, constantly tinkering with our lifestyle to find a healthy equilibrium. Some of us, however, will be experiments of a much higher order.

Welcome to the rapidly expanding world of genetic testing, a fascinating field rife with potential, both good and bad, that is no more than simple saliva swab away.

It’s also a burgeoning science that threatens to completely alter the development of elite athletes and sports performance. But none of those grandiose sporting dreams is going through my head as I subject myself to a DNA test at Advanced Genomic Solutions (AGS).

With genetic labs in both Scottsdale, Arizona and Hong Kong, AGS interprets the parameters of the human genes.

This test will be the backbone of a health and wellness report revealing the type of lifestyle choices most suited to my personal DNA.

“We are all unique genetically,” says Kevin MacDonald, the founder and chairman of AGS. “Your genes can explain why you react differently to exercise regimens and essential nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and vitamins.”

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When the results come back, it’s no surprise that I was never meant to be a marathon runner. But I do, however, have the ability to be a marathon drinker as the test reveals the ability to metabolise alcohol very quickly and capability to tolerate large amounts of the swill.

It’s good news for me but bad news for my liver and naturally this genetic predisposition comes with a caveat: “You should still consider limiting your intake to a maximum of one to two standard drinks per day.”

It is a remarkably detailed laundry list entailing everything from food cravings to taste perception to various food types. But there is one number and one gene that is a revelation unto itself, particularly in the world of sports: ACTN3.

It’s a gene associated with the ability of the body to use certain proteins responsible for generating force at high velocity. In other words, the gene that decides your power potential and is particularly crucial in disciplines like sprinting and weightlifting.

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Imagine doing a DNA test on a two-year-old whose ACTN3 shows above average power potential and you could be halfway towards developing the next Usain Bolt, in theory at least.

“While the ACTN3 can tell if a person has a predisposition to fast twitch muscle fibre production, the gene does not predict performance, desire, the mental ability or motivation it takes to excel in sports,” MacDonald says.

MacDonald is also careful to warn against reading too much into children’s potential beyond current physical performance tests. But while he may be cautious about overzealous prognostication, others are not.

Tales are rife of parents testing their children to discover hidden talents and rest assured that sporting authorities are most definitely doing DNA tests on youngsters as well to identify who will be elite and who will not.

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Of course, there are standard denials but recent history shows us we need look no further than a little north of the border for evidence of genetic tampering.

Perhaps the most prominent sporting lab experiment of recent times was China’s towering basketball hero Yao Ming. In the 2005 book Operation Yao Ming, author Brook Larmer contends that Yao was the product of an intricately contrived mating scheme perpetuated by Chinese authorities to help bring international sporting glory to the mainland.

His parents, both exceptionally tall basketball players, were apparently brought together by the state for the sole purpose of producing a superhuman offspring.

Larmer wrote of the evening Yao was born and how, “The faint whispers of a genetic conspiracy coursed through the corridors of Shanghai Number Six Hospital on the evening of September 12, 1980.”

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Naturally, the Chinese authorities completely denied all accusations, but what they cannot deny is their long history of selecting precocious athletes and taking them away from their families at an early age to state run sports institutions.

A system that would conspire to create a Yao Ming would seemingly have no reservations today about dabbling in the DNA “talent detecting industry.”

And it’s not just China, this is a global phenomenon. But far more troubling is the recent discovery of genetically modifying embryos to create a generation of superior athletes and intellectuals in the womb.

Of course that is the essence of scientific advances: they can be both intoxicating and terrifying as well. That is, however, an issue for future generations to deal with.

Today, I am just happy to know that the next drink I have will be metabolised fairly quickly. So make it a double bartender, and let’s drink to the miracles of modern science – both good and bad.