Unnatural Selection | How Genetic Science Will Decide the Future of the Olympics
“The key to Olympic success is to choose your parents well.”
Words by Sam Haddad
It’s August 20th 2044, and a scorching final day at the Olympics in Manchester as Team GB celebrate their greatest ever medal haul. For the first time in history they’ve topped the table with a phenomenal tally, including 70 Golds and 58 Silvers, vindicating the country’s controversial talent identification process, which now begins in utero.
Predicting future Olympians according to the DNA of unborn babies might seem a ridiculously far-fetched proposition, but in the next few decades it will almost certainly be scientifically possible to do so. Whether it’s ethical or desirable to try however, is another matter entirely.
Of course sporting stardom isn’t purely down to genetics, environment and opportunity are huge factors too. If Usain Bolt had been born in remotest Mongolia, rather than on the sprinter-loving island of Jamaica, he’s more likely to have been herding yaks than thrilling sold-out stadiums.
But it’s also safe to say without the right genes you will never be an elite athlete, as the sports scientist Yannis Pitsiladis playfully says: “The key to Olympic success is to choose your parents well. Champions are built from those with innate ability. It was different years ago, but now with the level of performance being so high, it’s the only way."
In 2003 a group of international scientists succeeded in mapping the human genome having identified around 23,000 regions of DNA that contain the genes which make us who we are. That is, the instruction manual that creates us and renders us unique, identical twins aside. They expected future research to find single genes for specific traits such as height, eye colour, sprinting prowess and so on but the reality proved to be far more complicated than that.
"If Usain Bolt had been born in remotest Mongolia… he’s more likely to have been herding yaks than thrilling sold-out stadiums."
Even seemingly straightforward characteristics such as height result from the combination of many different sections of many different genes in ways scientists are only just beginning to understand. While some genetic trait variants will only be switched on by certain environmental factors, such as training at altitude.
And when you take something as nebulous as sporting talent, which of course varies from sport to sport, the traits of a super fast sprinter being markedly different from those of an elite marathon runner, weight-lifter or badminton player, defining which genes make us really good is even harder. Especially as some psychological characteristics, such as the will to win or train or endure pain, appear to have a genetic dimension too.
But scientists are trying, helped by the big data crunching capabilities of computers and improvements in lab testing. To test someone’s DNA you now only need a swab on the end of a cotton wool bud. Yet Dr Alun Williams, a reader in Sport and Exercise Genomics at Manchester Metropolitan University, tells me the biggest stumbling block is the data collection. He says: “You need very large data samples to do an effective analysis, tens of thousands really."
And there simply aren’t that many elite athletes out there, plus you have to get through their entourage. It’s also tricky if you want to test something such as ‘trainability’, whereby two people can do exactly the same amount of training but one will get fitter than another. It’s thought to have a genetic basis, but to test it you need big groups of untrained volunteers willing to train over a period of time and be assessed. Though one such study managed to do just that. Slowly researchers are making inroads.
Williams says: “We know very little. There are a handful of genetic variants in a handful of genes we’re reasonably confident about. These include the ACTN3 gene [which codes for a protein found in the fastest kind of muscle fibres, in one study no Olympic sprinter had the negative TT version of that gene]. And genes for VO2 Max and trainability. But these are tiny pieces of a big jigsaw. We will know more in time."
"We know there’s a strong genetic component to things like sprinting speed and height so it’s already happening to an extent. Is it different ethically or morally to test the DNA directly?"
And when they do, the tiptoeing through the ethical minefield will well and truly begin. Williams is part of a team at the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences, which is already addressing such issues as they arise.
I ask Williams whether it would be right for a football team to take a genetic swab of a child before signing them for their youth academy, for example to check their potential speed, trainability or even injury risk. He says: “That’s a tricky one to think about. Football clubs currently take young people on at around seven or eight and do lots of assessments. They watch them but also do physiological tests such as height, strength, endurance, sprinting speed and making decisions on a judgement on their potential from it."
“We know there’s a strong genetic component to things like sprinting speed and height so it’s already happening to an extent. Is it different ethically or morally to test the DNA directly? It’s not clear that it is, it’s an extension of what currently goes on."
How about if parents started testing their own kids? “Many companies already offer genetic tests claiming they’ll tell you the sporting potential of your children but the science is still very weak. But as the data becomes stronger I’d feel slightly less comfortable with that, especially as a parent."
“It could change a family’s relationship and should a parent be choosing what sports their child does? Would they be well enough informed? I’d be more comfortable with professionals using and advising on the data."
The idea that the sports you played as a child would be determined by your genes rather than the ones you enjoyed the best sounds incredibly dystopian to me but then maybe we like the sports we’re best at the most, so maybe finding that out sooner would be a positive thing. While I was a good all-rounder sports-wise I spent years trying to be not-crap at gymnastics. It would have been great if my DNA could have saved me from all that pointless leotard-clad embarrassment.
Williams says: “Most people agree that we want people to be physically active but the major barriers to people starting things is the fear of not being good. If they do several sessions and don’t improve they stop. But if you give people the thing they’re better at to start with, that positive feedback might encourage them to do it more often."
Their genetic dice might mean they respond better to short tough bouts of weight-lifting rather than a long run or spin class. Williams says: “This isn’t just about future sport stars but general health."
Mindful of Williams’ advice on the science having a long way to go but curious as to where it’s actually at now I decide to get my DNA tested through the company DNAFit, who promise to help you “achieve your genetic potential." I chose them as they stick to genes related to fitness and diet, as I wasn’t up for any massively dark news such as whether I was going to develop dementia down the line.
As Tom Lancashire, a middle-distance runner and former Olympian who now works for DNAFit explains as he talks through my results. “There’s no bad news. It’s about helping you improve your life in a positive way. We have a strict inclusion protocol for the 45 gene expressions or SNPs that we test. They have to have been tested in multiple independent studies."
“This isn’t just about future sport stars but general health."
DNAFit work with the NHS, David Lloyd and many other sports clubs and stars, including the Team GB long jump star Greg Rutherford. I like that they remind you their tests are “neither comprehensive or absolute" and that they can “subsequently be deemed inaccurate or out of date by scientific advances." And I’m pleased they’re strictly against testing under 18s, though as you can buy them in Superdrug for £119 some unscrupulous parents could I guess bypass that if they really wanted to.
I ask Avi Lasarow, the CEO of DNAFit, why he’s against genetic testing on kids? He says: “It comes down to how you explain the science. Our test doesn’t tell you what sport you can or can’t play, or what you can or can’t do. It gives you information, so it can empower the person to be the best at what they are trying to do. If a company wasn’t responsible they might test a child and say it says you can’t be an elite athlete because of your genetics. That’s going to impact their positive outlook and that’s what you want to stay away from with anyone but especially with kids."
But he is keen to point out the positive impacts the test can have for adults citing someone he worked with who was 43% body fat, so technically overweight. He says: “Her personal trainer was saying get on the treadmill we’ll do loads of cardio and high-intensity training but she used to hate it. Her DNA test showed she had a much higher bias towards power so we put her on a weights regime instead and she had great results."
He says: “There is no doubt that you can use your genes to train well."
I scrape some of my cheek cells onto a cotton wool bud and post them off to DNAFit. 10 days later I login to check my results, which I later go through with Lancashire. It feels exciting and otherworldly to be looking at the things that make me me, even with the knowledge that this is a tiny pixel of the bigger picture.
"If a company wasn’t responsible they might test a child and say it says you can’t be an elite athlete because of your genetics. That’s going to impact their positive outlook…"
Of course I’m interested in whether I have either of the ACTN3 sprinter gene variants and I do (watch out Usain Bolt!) though I also have a 35.3 per cent power response compared to 64.7 per cent for endurance. That doesn’t mean I can’t sprint but Lancashire tells me I will get more fitness gains from a longer workout or run or bike ride below my maximum capacity rather than short tough bursts of activity. That’s kind of what I do already but by chance not design.
He says: “A lot of elite athletes say I wish I’d known this five years ago because I would have not lost a year training this way." I can certainly see how this could enable people to train more effectively.
My VO2max trainability is medium, which means I’ll get a benefit if I spend time improving it and my recovery speed is fast, which is good as it means I can train everyday but bad as it’ll be tougher for me to justify rest days. The most surprising news was that my injury risk was very high, as I have genetic variants, which may predispose me to inflammation. Aside from a broken stubbed toe this summer, which I blame on Brexit, I’m hardly ever injured.
Lancashire tells me that could be good biomechanics or just good luck and that I should see it as a warning. If I was going to seriously up my road running to say 80 miles a week I may be at risk of stress fractures, or it would be wise to strengthen the muscles around my knee if I was going to take up squash. Squash isn’t my thing but I did ditch my snowboard for a day last winter and go on skis and my knees did feel a little tender afterwards. If I try skis again I’ll be sure to strengthen up first.
I ask Lancashire if he thinks it’s a worry that variants such as injury risk could be used by clubs as a way of filtering talent in the future. He says: “I think it’s more something they can use for athletes. I wouldn’t say I’m not going to take this person onto my football team, I’d say this person needs a pretty watertight pre-hab programme to make sure they’re able to play as much as possible."
"As Team GB celebrates another unprecedented medal haul in Rio it’s worth noting the last two Games have been so successful due to the intense application of sports science and Talent ID."
Talent used to come from the kids who shuffled up to the local athletics track or swimming pool or those who were driven to the rowing club by their parents. The Olympians would be those with the most passion for their sport, sometimes the ones with great genes but often just the ones who practised most. But the process left out huge swathes of potential talent from the picture.
And as Team GB celebrates another unprecedented medal haul in Rio it’s worth noting the last two Games have been so successful due to the intense application of sports science and Talent ID. That is identifying future athletes, even if they’ve never ever tried the sport it’s hoped they’ll one day medal in, by using physiological data and trying to match the right body types for the right sport.
Before London 2012, UK Sport launched Sporting Giants, which aimed to turn tall, sporty people into rowers or handball and volleyball players. Amongst those chosen was Helen Glover, who then won a rowing gold having never previously been in a boat, though she had been excellent at other sports including swimming, tennis, cross country running and hockey. She’s just added a second gold at the Rio Games.
UK Sport’s latest campaign is #DiscoverYour Gold, an even broader talent identification programme. It still wants giants for rowing and netball but now also wants those with a speed or power background for cycling and canoeing, gymnasts or acrobats for freestyle snowboarding and skiing and those with a combat sport background for boxing and judo.
They might not be testing genes literally but they’re testing for genetic talent and reaping massive rewards from doing so. I know this is just about elite sport, but as a sport-loving person I have a slight problem with the message, especially that it could send to kids, that you need to be tall to excel at netball or acrobatic to be awesome at snowboarding. As surely the aim of Team GB getting medals is to inspire as many British people as possible to get up off the couch and do some sport. To make them believe with hard work anything is possible, rather than making them feel the genetic dice were loaded against them ever achieving such greatness.
What happens if Talent ID evolves into genetic testing and means a future where kids will be swabbed as infants or have their DNA sampled in the womb and told which sports to play at school with the freak genetic outliers such Usain Bolt siphoned off for elite programmes? Might we then miss out on athletes such as Messi, whose destined height could have seen him written off as a junior? What would happen to kids who have a mad passion for a sport but the wrong genes for it? Is it even helpful to know that much about your essence?
From a spectator’s point of view, there are questions too. Would the Olympics get too predictable if all the athletes had the perfect genes for their sport? Perhaps, or maybe the public would get even more invested in watching the extreme genetic outliers compete. But that still leaves the the psychological side, would we be less impressed with Laura Trott’s grit if we knew it was genetically predetermined?
"Would we be less impressed with Laura Trott’s grit if we knew it was genetically predetermined?"
There’s also the risk of gene editing, either of human embryos or actual humans, to produce the most genetically gifted athletes. It might sound like the ultimate dystopia but there’s a new technique called CRISPR, which allows scientists to modify DNA and many are predicting it to be the next doping-style scandal in elite sport. For surely it would be impossible to test whether your characteristics were natural or gene edited.
Perhaps the future will lie in Olympic sports where there are too many external variables for the most genetically gifted athletes to definitely win. In Rio it’s been interesting to see how well Team GB did in the controlled and consistent conditions of the velodrome compared to how badly they fared in the road races when weather and differing course profiles came into play.
Freestyle snowboarders and skiers constantly face variable weather conditions and their half pipes and slopestyle courses are always different. Plus the judging is not an exact science, unlike crossing a line in first place. Lesley McKenna, GB Park and Pipe Team Manager tells me that means they need a slightly different approach to Talent ID, and that while they are looking for gymnastic or acrobatic qualities that would never be enough.
She says: “If you have a top level gymnast and they’re not interested at all in snowboarding I would say they could get to the top level but the chance of them being the best in the world is nil."
“If the main driver is to win at all costs in our world it won’t sustain. Due to the weather conditions and snow conditions, and you’ve got the culture to understand and the way our sports are judged. In order to excel in that environment you have to value the progression of the sport not just the winning."
“Torah Bright and Jenny Jones fell in love with snowboarding before they went onto the competition circuits. They were driven by their enjoyment and the fulfilment they got from doing those sports. Billy Morgan came from an acrobatic background, but then went to a dry slope and decided he wanted to do a season. We need to find more people like that."
"Everybody can gain something from a sport if it’s a lifelong learning thing, as you can better yourself."
McKenna also reminds me that elite athletes are just a small part of the picture. “Everybody can gain something from a sport if it’s a lifelong learning thing, as you can better yourself. If you’re motivated and get something out of playing sport then it will always be for you, it doesn’t matter if you’re never going to be at the elite end."
Regarding GB Park and Pipe’s Talent ID programme, she tells me: “As much as we want another Jenny Jones or Billy Morgan, we also want it inspire lots of kids to get into snowboarding." And if that isn’t what the Olympics should always be about then I don’t know what is.