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Is DNA profiling for athletes a future we should embrace, or avoid at all costs?

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3D image of a male figure and skeleton sprinting on strands of DNA

  • An examination of the scientific evidence as well as the ethical and moral dilemmas associated with genetic analysis to predict athletic performance.
  • By using genome sequencing as a coaching tool, athletes may feel under pressure to focus all their efforts on a sport they are predisposed to excel in.
  • Profiling can help coaches map individualised training programmes and nutritional plans to maximise performance.
  • The practice of using genes to identify and select only the most inherently gifted children for performance pathways seems reprehensible, but could become reality.

The science of predictive genomics is as utterly fascinating as it is utterly frightening.

Talk of rapid advancements in DNA research is nothing new. The practice of gene cloning and genetic engineering has been in the debating chamber even before Dolly the sheep took her first ‘magical’ breath in 1996, stoking the flames of controversy around whether it is morally or ethically right for scientists to be playing God.

Well, the latest ‘strand’ of DNA research to set tongues wagging concerns genome sequencing. The potential implications are just as monumental, and every major industry has a vested interest in how the future pans out.

The sport and coaching sectors – like the health, education and employment sectors – stand at a crossroads as they contemplate what to do about chromosome mapping. Do the power brokers and chief decision-makers jump on board the bandwagon of scientific progress? If they do, the sporting landscape will change forever.

Even choosing to ignore this route, and forego the supposed treasure trove of knowledge athletes and coaches could have at their fingertips, may only be delaying the inevitable.

So what has the world come to?

Well, we find ourselves at the extraordinary point in history where a mouth swab or saliva specimen sent for testing in a laboratory can divulge an intricate, if inexact, roadmap of life, thanks to scientists being able to work out the precise function of each and every gene in our body.

Your increased risk of developing certain cancers, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, depression, for example, can be defined, thereby aiding early identification and treatment. And no need for a crystal ball to forecast if you will grow up thin or overweight, as twin studies estimate heritability of body mass index (BMI) to be 40–70%.

There is a genetic component to intelligence. Our intellect may be heavily influenced by environmental factors, luck and parental behaviour, however the genes involved in brain development explain 11-13% of the variance in academic success.

In terms of sports coaching and athletic performance, things get even more interesting. If you want to know which sport you are best suited to, scientists say they now have the technological tools to provide you with a pretty accurate answer.

Sound the alarm bells

An international panel of experts concluded in 2015 that no child or young athlete should be subjected to genetic testing to spot sporting talent or boost performance.

But the fact is that a child’s genetic predisposition for certain sports can now be tested, enabling individuals, parents and coaches to make an informed choice, if they so desire, about which sport to specialise in to maximise their chances of success. It also gives them the opportunity to prepare ready-made solutions in case anticipated problems occur – such as an increased risk of developing a particular type of injury due to inheriting a faulty gene.

So should we be alarmed or excited?

ALARMED, ALARMED, ALARMED! I hear you shout back louder than Brian Blessed with a megaphone.

There is a famous line in the film ‘The Fly’, where the genetic material of human and fly become integrated: ‘Be afraid, be very afraid,’ whispered Geena Davis.

A future in which genetic profiling is the norm will, many coaches fear, only serve to zap the fun out of sports participation, in a similar way to which Jeff Goldblum’s character had his genes zapped out of him in his teleportation chamber.

Parents happily chat about their child’s predilection for a certain sport. In the not-too-distant future, the conversation could centre on their predisposition for a certain sport.

A scientist, with pencil in hand, analyses a sheet containing someone's DNA profile

The case for the defence

The problem, of course, is that in the highest echelons of sport, marginal gains are king. And the gains that are achievable through genetic profiling could potentially be huge – and with no extra physical effort required at all.

While genomics may not be an exact science, you can still imagine how such easily obtained information can be beneficial to a sports coach and their protégés.

People’s response to different types of training is genetic, science tells us; there are significant genetic components to endurance performance, to skeletal muscle strength, responsiveness to fatigue, vulnerability to sports-related injuries and so on.

Which aspiring athlete wouldn’t want to know that their levels of fast-twitch muscle fibres – the type that aid explosive speed – are 15% higher than your average person’s, or that their slow-twitch muscle fibres – the ones that control endurance – are significantly lower than you might typically expect.

You could plot these findings alongside your gene sequence results for competitiveness, calmness under pressure, pain tolerance, aerobic capacity (VO2 Max), cardiovascular response to acute exercise. Heck, there are even genes for trainability and a person’s responsiveness to being coached.

Oh, and don’t forget those responsible for regulating muscle glucose uptake and muscle protein synthesis. Or those responsible for mitochondrial density – where a ‘high score’ will mean you are able to train or compete faster and for longer. Those au fait with physiological terminology will be in their element in this new world.

In more basic terms, if you love athletics and your genome tells you that you have a predisposition for strength over endurance, clearly, given the same dedication, effort and coaching input, you will excel in the stamina disciplines – say 1500m to 10,000m – more than you would the sprint disciplines or field events.

Standing on a precipice

Genetic differences then account for all areas of athletic performance, and knowledge of your own genetic advantages and disadvantages would be gold dust for an experienced coach in terms of mapping individualised training programmes and nutritional plans.

So I ask again, should we have a problem with elite coaches being given special dispensation to find out their athletes’ genetic profiles so they can personalise training sessions to maximise performance? Human DNA sequences are already patentable in some countries. The horse has already bolted, has it not?

Perhaps it would be more unethical for labs to issue profiling results to amateur athletes who crave their DIY gene map so they can crunch the numbers and play the percentage game to optimise their chances of future stardom?

The consensus, I am hazarding a guess, is that society is on dangerous ground. We are only one fateful step away from justifying talent identification based on gene sequencing, where only the most inherently gifted children are selected for performance pathways due to their predicted ‘worth’.

And once you have taken that first step on the slippery slope, where will it lead?

Is it going overboard to drop in the word ‘eugenics’ at this point? The practice of genes being used as a gauge of worth is, after all, steeped in some of the blackest moments in human history, where those responsible for unimaginable atrocities attempted to legitimise their actions on the basis of genetic superiority or inferiority of certain groups.

Be careful what you wish for

Before I step off my soapbox, there’s one other thing to bear in mind with genome sequencing: you can put too much faith in numbers.

So while the percentages provided in a profile can be enticing, as Professor Ewan Birney told The Times, our faith in those numbers could end up undermining their value.

‘Say you have a son, you sequence his genome, and find he has very high odds of going to college. At that time you say to your wife, “You know what, our son does not need to go to school”. I promise you, your son will not go to college,’ says Professor Birney.

Acting like a lure to a fish, an athlete could become hooked on their DNA profile, finding it difficult to break free of its hypnotic pull.

They may think they are en route to glory armed with their own genetic road map, but their journey could so easily end up careering off down the boulevard of broken dreams.

What are your views on genetic profiling? Please share by leaving a comment below.

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Comments (4)


I think it is unlikely that genetic analysis will provide sport specific information. It is more likely to point to the predisposition to develop muscle mass, height, potential VO2 max capacity etc. These are characteristics that are useful in a wide range of sports. So the risk is only that "pushy parents" over-interpret the information.
Even if genetic data were to provide more sport specific information, anyone who has had teenage kids will know that pushing them in a certain direction is unlikely to be successful. They will decide for themselves what career to choose.
However, it could be of value in professional sports, but this is such a small proportion of the total number of athletes that I wouldn't be concerned about it.

My grandchildren love table tennis, football, basketball, swimming, skiing, mountain biking, and probably some other sports they have not yet tried or told me about. If I learned that they were genetically predisposed to a certain sport, I would probably encourage them to pursue other sports first as whatever they are predisposed to will come easy to them.

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The idea has been around for many years starting with marrying off champion athletes. Their offspring are often successful in sport probably because they have to accompany Mum & Dad to events & grow up watching the skills & training rather than the gene inheritance. The offsprings are often successful in other sports however. Occasionally they rebel & do something completely different, which might also be because of the genes. Nothing is certain in life.

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This article is slightly misleading in where an athlete coach could use the benefit from DNA Testing, as it delves into areas that have nothing to do with sport improvement.

I have been DNA tested by a company called DNA Fit, I was initially sceptical, but following the report and consultation I have recommended this to all my athletes that I coach.

I would recommend this for two main reasons:

1. Athlete profile will give an individual a full report on how their body responds to certain types of training, how their MSK is prone to and responds to injury, based on their DNA profile.

2. Dietary profile will give an individual a full report on how their body processes, Carbs, fats, proteins, salt, caffeine, the different types of vitamins, based on their DNA profile.

Both points are a snapshot of the full report, but the benefits for an athlete and coach are that they have the understanding of where training and nutrition will be best targeted and avoided. For less than £200 (many triathletes will spend more on a helmet) DNA testing may offer more value to a serious athlete than many other investments.

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DNA testing in its current form is generally about vague probabilities and insight, though those probabilities could become more refined in the future but presently the science for predicting world class performance is woolly at best and only applicable for certain sports (e.g. Sprinting). The results I received only clarified what I already knew about myself from experience (Intolerances, higher power over endurance profile, etc). As we know there's a multitude of factors involved in becoming an elite athlete such as education, passion, sacrifice, motivation, behaviours, environment, luck, etc. so DNA testing for your average athlete or skill based sports is not of great value or a predictor for future success.

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