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.