Uzbekistan Is Using Genetic Testing to Find Future Olympians

The country is experimenting with "sports selection at the molecular genetic level."
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Uzbek weightlifter Ruslan Makarov reacts after a failed lift at the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Reuters/Dominic Ebenbichler)

The idea of using genetic testing to spot future world-class athletes has been bandied about for years. Now, Uzbekistan hopes to get a jump on the competition by testing children as young as 10 to determine their athletic potential.

Rustam Muhamedov, director of the genetics laboratory at Uzbekistan's Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry, announced the program for "sports selection at the molecular genetic level" on January 5 in the government-owned Pravda Vostoka newspaper.

He said in an interview that the program, overseen by Uzbekistan's Academy of Sciences, would be "implemented in practice" in early 2015 in cooperation with the National Olympic Committee and several of the country's national sports federations—including soccer, swimming, and rowing.

Muhamedov's team began studying the genes of champion Uzbek athletes two years ago. He says that after another year of work in Tashkent, his team will be ready to publish a panel presentation on a specific set of 50 genes that he claims will identify future champions.

"Developed countries throughout the world like the United States, China, and European countries are researching the human genome and have discovered genes that define a propensity for specific sports," Muhamedov says. "We want to use these methods in order to help select our future champions." In practice, Muhamedov says that after the 50 genes of a child are tested from a blood sample, "their parents will be told what sports they are best suited for"—such as distance running or weightlifting.

Muhamedov's announcement marks the first time any country's Olympic Committee has been officially linked to a program using genetic tests to recommend specific sports programs for children.

The idea of gene testing is source of controversy, with supporters viewing it as a new frontier in sports science and critics saying it presents a labyrinth of complicated legal, moral, and ethical issues. But unlike genetic doping, which is the use of genetic therapy with substances such as EPO to enhance athletic performance, genetically testing potential athletes is not banned by the International Olympic Committee or by global sports federations. The World Anti-Doping Agency, which promotes, monitors, and coordinates the global fight against doping in sports, has nevertheless strongly discouraged genetic tests for athletic performance.

David Epstein, a sports science journalist and author of the best-selling book The Sports Gene, explains that genes are important in terms of athletic achievement and development. But he doubts Muhamedov's claims that genetic tests can accurately identify future world-champion athletes.

​​"Actually, it doesn't make much sense to do it at the genetic level at this point. What they are trying to do is learn about someone's physiology. If you want to learn about someone's physiology, you should test their physiology instead of the genes," Epstein says.

"We have no clue what most genes do. So if you make a decision based on a small number of genes, which presumably is what is going to happen, you're sort of trying to decide what a puzzle looks like when you've only got one of the pieces, or two of the pieces, and you don't have the other hundred or thousand pieces," he adds.

Epstein says Uzbekistan's program is the first time he has heard of genetic tests on children to try to predict their future athletic abilities. "I've heard of other countries working with geneticists with adults. There was an Australian rugby team testing players for one gene called ACTN3 that codes for a protein found only in fast-twitch muscle fibers—the kind for sprinting and jumping. If you don't have the so-called 'right version,' you're just not going to be in the Olympic 100-meter final. That's just a fact," he says.

"So that has a little predictive power. But that only rules out one of 7 billion people on Earth. So it's an incredibly poor predictor. You would have a better prediction by using a stopwatch and timing someone," Epstein continues. "So they actually gave up those efforts because they realized that, while they are interesting for research, they are useless for selection. Most federations have realized it would be crazy to apply this to children at a younger level."

Legal experts say there could be legal issues if genetic testing impacts a person's natural genetic code. Mandatory tests also pose legal dilemmas in countries like the United States, where laws prevent employers from forcing workers to submit to genetic tests.

But Torbjorn Tannsjo, a philosophy professor at Stockholm University who specializes on the ethics of genetic science, says he sees no moral problems with Uzbekistan's genetic-testing plans. "To me, this sounds like the most innocuous application of genetic technology to sport," he says.

"But, of course, when you think of it you also come to think of the next step, so to speak, where you make genetic interventions, where you genetically design heroes for competition," Tannsjo adds. "That raises the most startling questions about the ethos of sport and the general issue of human physical enhancement."

Tannsjo predicts, however, that as genetic modifications become increasingly prevalent for curing diseases and otherwise enhancing people's "natural assets," the World Anti-Doping Agency will eventually be forced to lift its ban on genetic doping.


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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