Uzbekistan uses genetic testing to discover the next Olympians

Uzbekistan hunts for natural born winners

To spot future olympians it’s common practice to wait to see if youngsters are actually good at any given activity but the central Asian country of Uzbekistan is testing the genes of children as young as 10 to try and find future champion athletes.

The nation has been studying the genes of its top athletes for two years now and have picked out a set of 50 genes that they believe plays a role “performance”, said Rustam Muhamedov, director of the genetics laboratory at Uzbekistan’s Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry:

“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.

 

 

Experts are skeptical though because it isn’t known what most genes do, and even then, it’s often unclear how multiple genes interact.

As journalist David Epstein writes in his book The Sports Gene, if you want to see which kids are likely to be the fastest, its best to line them up and have a race

“Actually, it doesn’t make much sense to do it at the genetic level at this point,” said Epstein.

“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.”

Uzbekistan’s program is the first to test children try to gauge their future athletic prowess and while the evidence is flimsy scientists have been conducting tests on adult Olympians for years. Team Australia, one of the most prolific technology users in the Olympic Games began testing their rugby teams for a gene called ACTN3 that codes for a protein found only in fast-twitch muscle fibers – the kind for sprinting and jumping and their results showed that if you don’t have the so called “right version” then you’re just not going to be in the Olympic 100 meter final.

“That’s just a fact,” said their sports director.

As a result, and if nothing else, these tests show that there might be a little amount of predictive power to be gleaned and over time, as scientists continue to unravel the significance of our genetic makeup these tests might become a regular part of the olympic assessment process. After all, if WADA, the Olympic drug agency is testing for “gene-doping” then it’s quite conceivable that genetics does in fact play a part in helping to create olympians but how much… well, that’s the question.

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