Can a Genetic Test Tell if Your Kid Is the Next Usain Bolt?

Laird Harrison

Disclosures

August 31, 2016

Genetic Tests for Athletic Ability?

Are there genes that predict superior performance in particular sports? Watching Jamaican sprinters outpace their competition in the Olympic Games this month has led many spectators to speculate.

Did Usain Bolt and Elaine Thompson capture the men's and women's 100- and 200-meter gold medals, respectively, for their Caribbean Island nation because they have more symmetrical knees than their competition? Researchers have hypothesized that about Jamaicans in the past.[1] Do Kenyan marathoners, on the other hand, breathe oxygen faster?[2] And what genetic traits, if any, allow the Chinese to dominate ping pong?

The answers to such questions could make a big difference to the multi-billion-dollar businesses of sports, fitness, and nutrition. Already some firms are offering to test the genes of aspiring athletes. Based on the results, they'll offer an individually tailored training regimen or vitamin prescription. They imply that they could steer a 10-year-old with the potential to become the next Michael Phelps away from a fruitless effort to master croquet and into the nearest swimming pool.

Experts Beg to Differ

But such propositions have geneticists waving red flags. "I think we can pretty confidently say that we have no basis whatsoever to make these assertions," says Euan Ashley, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine and genetics at Stanford University.

In November, Dr Ashley teamed up with 23 other prominent geneticists and exercise physiologists from around the world to publish a consensus statement that "genetic tests have no role to play in talent identification or the individualised prescription of training to maximise performance."[3]

They'd like to correct claims from such companies as AnabolicGenes, which promises to "analyse your DNA in order to have a clear view on how your body responds to diet & training,"[4] or Genomic Express, which suggests that it can tell "whether you have a genetic advantage in either athletic power or endurance events."[5]

It's not that genes don't matter in athletic achievement. Dr Ashley and his colleagues agree that being tall helps basketball players, for example, and that genes help determine a person's height.

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