In 2014, the former Soviet nation of Uzbekistan announced a plan that it hoped would give it a leg up in future Olympic games: It would DNA test Uzbek children to determine their athletic potential.
Rustam Mukhamedov, a scientist at Uzbekistan’s Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry, had been studying the genes of champion Uzbek athletes for two years. And, he said at the time, his team was close to zeroing in on a set of 50 genes that could identify future Olympians. Using blood samples, Uzbekistan would test the DNA of children as young as 10 for those 50 markers, and, based on that, inform parents of which sports their children were most likely to excel.
“We want to use these methods in order to help select our future champions,” Mukhamedov told Radio Free Europe.
Uzbekistan was the first nation to screen the genes of its youth in search of future athletes. But it probably won’t be the last.
Scientists have long studied the link between athletic superstars and genetic code.
“Elite athletes—the people who are running two-hour marathons or 100 metres in 10 seconds or less—they are genetically gifted,” Nir Eynon, who researches genetics and athletic performance at Australia’s Victoria University, told me.
The trouble is, in 2018, the answer to which of the many thousands of genes that make up the human genome make those elite athletes so strong and fast and powerful is still basically, well, a shrug.
“We just don’t know,” said Eynon.
But when you’re looking to shave mere seconds off your time, even a placebo might seem valuable if it gives you a mental edge. This makes athletes particularly vulnerable to pseudoscience, and science that hasn’t quite yet been proven. At the 2016 summer Olympics, athletes were spotted using kinesio taping (a soft, stretchy tape applied to injured or injury-prone areas), cryotherapy (exposing the body to sub-zero temperatures) to cope with injuries, breathing nasal strips to improve airflow, and IV hydration to improve the efficiency of fluid intake—all strategies with very little, if any, scientific merit. Enthusiasm for the not-quite-scientific persists among elite athletes outside of the Olympics, too. My hometown basketball team, the Golden State Warriors, have been known to employ transcranial direct stimulation to improve strength and agility, a nascent and controversial technology that delivers pulses of electrical current to the brain with effects that have been drastically over-hyped.
“So much of what athletes do lacks evidence—from supplements, to recovery strategies, to dealing with injuries, to, yep, genetic testing,” Timothy Caulfield, a bioethicist at the University of Alberta, told me.
Science be damned. Results are results.
“The placebo theatre that surrounds much of this stuff may help and, as a result, give them the impression it works,” Caulfield said. “Unfortunately, when athletes use this bunk it may facilitate the spread of pseudoscience. They are powerful anecdotes!”
The science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Unfortunately, in sports, magic often passes for advanced technology.
The science of genetics is especially prone to exploitation by magical thinking, because while it’s not currently possible to use DNA to predict which sports you’re biologically suited for, or how to best nurse an injury, advancements in science could very well mean that DNA plays a role in how athletes train in the future.
Small studies have pinpointed genes that could make training and injury recovery more efficient. A mutation of the gene COL1A1, which assists in collagen production, for example, seems to result in a decreased risk of ACL rupture among athletes. One gene, ACTN3, almost certainly influences athletic performance, and appears frequently in the genes of Olympic-level power athletes like sprinters.
“It’s probably not going to be one gene or two genes that influence athletic ability. It’s going to be hundreds or thousands of genes that are contributing very small percentages to athletic performance. It is very, very complicated.”
So far, said Eynon, most of the studies have been too small to extrapolate much from them other than fruitful directions for future research. Not to mention that the way different genes in the body influence and interact with one another is infinitely complex.
“It’s probably not going to be one gene or two genes that influence athletic ability. It’s going to be hundreds or thousands of genes that are contributing very small percentages to athletic performance,” he said. “It is very, very complicated.”
Those genes, he said, might even vary wildly among different populations.
“A cohort in Australia and a cohort in Africa could wind up even having different sets of genes that predispose them to be really good athletes,” he told me.
The undiscovered country of the human genome hasn’t stopped genetic testing companies from harvesting its riches.
In the U.S. alone, there are at least five companies that sell genetic tests for athletic performance directly to consumers. Many of these companies have partnered with pro sports teams, an endorsement that adds to the appearance of efficacy and bolsters consumer appeal.
The DNA testing company Orig3n, for example, has given out DNA tests for performance at professional sporting events, through partnerships with teams including the San Francisco 49ers. The Egyptian Football Association has employed testing company DNAFit to help improve player performance. Likewise, Champions League footballers Barcelona have turned to DNA testing to determine which players are most likely to get injured and design training programs accordingly, as has at least one Premier League football club.
During the Winter Olympics, 23andMe has been running a campaign called “DNA of a Champion” in which “legendary winter athletes learned from their 23andMe experiences.” On video, Olympic gold medal speed skater Joey Cheek says that his 23andMe results were a “vindication” that he wound up on the “exact right path” because, while he was a lot smaller than other speed skaters early in his career, he also has genes associated with power athletes. All this despite strong admonishments from the scientific community that, as a group of scientists wrote in 2015 in a consensus statement, such tests “have no role to play in talent identification or the individualized prescription of training to maximize performance.” (23andMe, for it’s part, is careful to note that “hard work and perseverance” are a big part of the equation, too.)
23andMe ad from its “DNA of a Champion” campaign
DNAFit, which claims its tests “will change the way you think about fitness and nutrition forever,” was actually co-founded by a former Olympic sprinter, Andrew Steele. Steele heads product development at the company, which offers tests for wellbeing, nutrition, and sports through Helix’s app store for DNA.
“We turn your lab data, into action,”the DNAFit website promises. “We reveal everything from your response to power or endurance exercise and recovery, to a detailed breakdown of your macro and micronutrient needs.”
Steele was a little less exuberant than the website marketing copy.
“There’s lots of misconception that genetics is going to provide some sort of, like, talent identification,” he told me. “There’s no scientific or ethical basis to be able to say that someone will or won’t become an athlete based on their genetics. I doubt we’ll ever be able to say here’s one genetic profile which will become an elite athlete.”
Of course, you may have the gene for speed, but if you don’t train hard, that’s not much use. Likewise, even for those not genetically gifted, hard work can go a long way.
Where Steele does think the company’s test is useful—though many scientists disagree that any such test could be—is in training and injury prevention.
“If you know that in a team environment there’s four or five people with a particular high-risk predisposition around, let’s say, cases of injuries, then you might deviate from the average training approach for certain individuals,” he said.
Steele said that DNAFit only tests for genes that have been shown to have a connection to fitness or athletic factors in multiple published studies. But those studies might not meet the standards of scientists like Eynon. One of the papers the company cites related to the COL5A1 gene, which is associated with tendinopathy, looked at just a few hundred people in South Africa and Australia. The company cited nine other studies related to the gene, but those studies were similarly sized and in restricted populations. Taken together, the findings are significant, but still probably not significant enough to be doling out actionable advice to anyone who takes DNAFit’s test. The research simply isn’t extensive enough to be conclusive.
“There’s no scientific or ethical basis to be able to say that someone will or won’t become an athlete based on their genetics.”
Steele doesn’t deny this. But, he says, the research is promising and athletes have the right to access it as long as it’s made clear what effects—or lack of effect—the data could have. He thinks that even the genetic research we have today can help athletes train more effectively and prevent injuries.
DNAFit also has a research arm, and in 2016 company researchers co-authored a study looking at how genetic data could influence training. Researchers developed an algorithm that matched two groups of athletes to high- or low-intensity workouts based on 15 different genes. The algorithm also purposely mismatched people. Generally speaking, those whose genotype matched their training performed better.
“Genetics in sport is at the tip of it’s iceberg, but that should not be a barrier to utility,” Steele said. “As long as the science is used correctly, and crucially in context, then we should not wait.”
Stanford’s Stuart Kim sympathised with this logic.
“I’ve been a scientist my whole career and I just feel like everything needs to be 100 percent true,” he said. “But if it’s like 60 percent likely to be true and you’re an elite athlete, there’s very little downside to getting genetic testing.”
At an individual level, he said, it’s almost impossible to prove whether a specific training regiment is working. Which also means it’s hard to prove that it’s not working if you’re seeing results.
Caulfield, the bioethicist, doesn’t buy it—not even for elite athletes looking for incremental improvements in performance.
“I’m sceptical of all of it,” he said. “The evidence is simply not there.”
The research in progress right now, though, is compelling.
The Athlome Consortium, for example, is undertaking massive studies across multiple nations and research institutions to understand the genetic underpinnings of athletic ability. The consortium’s 1000 Athlome Project aims to sequence the genomes of 1,000 sprinters and distance runners of West and East African descent by 2020 (the goal for 2018 is to get to 100).
Eynon is part of the consortium. Last year he authored a commentary suggesting that while 20 years of research has resulted in “no set of genetic variants available to predict exercise performance and predisposition to injuries in individuals,” as well as many papers that were eventually invalidated and riddled with errors, the field of sports genetics was at long last undergoing a paradigm shift that put it on the precipice of real results.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that we require to distance ourselves from small candidate-gene driven studies to obtain a more global, unbiased picture of how the genome influences the response to exercise by conducting whole-genome approaches that are hypothesis-free,” he wrote.
In the future, Eynon said, it’s entirely possible that an understanding of genetics will influence how elite athletes train and play, and even how the average gym-goer exercises. (The World Anti-Doping Association has come down on using gene therapy for performance enhancement
but has not forbidden genetic tests.)
That, though, could come with its own set of consequences. It’s easy to imagine a future where kids are encouraged to take up cross country because they’ve got the right genes for it. Or, taken to an extreme, where genetics become part of qualifying for the Olympics or the NBA draft.
“What are we really afraid of is that we’ll predispose athletes in very early age and tell children, ‘You are talented,’ or ‘You are not talented,’ based on your genes,” Eynon said. “Because this is absolutely not true.”
Steele, too, cautions against this. In fact, he says, he is one of those athletes that beat their genetic odds—he doesn’t have the variant of the ACTN3 gene that so many power athletes have, but he’s a world-class sprinter anyway. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he finished the 400 metre race in 44.94 seconds, reaching the semi-finals. As part of Britain’s team, he finished fourth in the 4x400 metre relay. After the Russian team that beat them was stripped of their bronze medal due to doping, his team even retroactively won a medal.
“If you were to base a prediction on genetics, I would be an absolute outlier, yet I won an Olympic medal in a power event,” he told me.
On the other hand, I’ve taken DNAFit’s test, and I do have two copies of that magical ACTN3 gene, meaning that I am at least genetically predisposed to being a very powerful runner. I do run, but my fastest mile time is more like nine minutes. On a distance run, it’s more like 11 minutes. No explosive strength and speed there. I’ve also got one gene that says I’m at increased risk for tendinopathy and another that says I’m not, as well as genes that suggest I should be a great endurance runner and a terrible one. So far, my genetic data offers me nothing but contradictions.
As for Uzbekistan’s grand plan to breed a nation of genetically gifted champions, it’s hard to tell whether anything even came of it. The project’s head never responded to emails from Gizmodo. No research on those 50 champion athlete genes has ever been published. And this Olympic season, Uzbekistan only has two athletes competing. So far, neither of them have won any medals.