Picture the visit to the doctor's office: As a small child in soccer uniform climbs onto the examining table, her mother asks for help interpreting the report that says her daughter doesn't have the variant of the ACTN3 gene associated with exceptional athletic prowess.
Two pediatricians concerned about such scenarios - and the matching ones in homes and schools - have penned a cautionary commentary [abstract] about gene tests that claim to predict the athletic potential of young children. "In the `winning is everything' sports culture," write Dr. M. Alison Brooks and Dr. Beth Tarini in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, "societal pressure to use these tests in children may increasingly present a challenge to unsuspecting physicians."
Brooks and Tarini point out that the meaning of gene tests for sports ability is controversial, and that claims of using them to identify future athletic stars are at best premature. Even if a particular gene or set of genes is shown to correlate with athletic success, they sensibly argue, greater contributions will always be made by "psychological traits, training facilities, finances, nutrition, coaching, and just plain luck."
But none of that has stopped genetic testing companies. Cygene markets its Optimum Athletic Performance DNA Analysis with the claim "Olympic success might be in your future!" And when Atlas Sports Genetics launched its $169 cheek swab test in 2008, the New York Times reported that it was targeting the parents of children from infancy to age 8 "because physical tests to gauge future sports performance at that age are, at best, unreliable."
At that time, even the president of Atlas worried that some parents would "go overboard with the results and specialize their children too quickly and fervently." He even acknowledged concerns that such tests would lead to "a rebirth of eugenics, similar to what Hitler did in trying to create this race of perfect athletes."
Yet he defended the sports gene tests for "kids from 1 and up," on the grounds that "[i]if you wait until high school or college to find out if you have a good athlete on your hands, by then it will be too late." His colleague Brian Epley, founder of a "talent identification company" to which Atlas plans to direct children, argued that the US needs to test very young kids so its national teams can keep up with China and Russia. "This is how we could stay competitive with the rest of the world," Epley said.
It is true that China is experimenting with DNA testing of children. A 2009 CNN story that Genetic Crossroads blogger Osagie Obasogie highlighted at the time described a five-day summer camp where children's genes are tested and their athletic, artistic, and musical activities closely observed. "For basketball, we can test for height and other factors," said a leading scientist on the project. "We also test listening ability so that can tell us if (the child) might be talented at music."
Pediatricians Brooks and Tarini keep their focus on doctors and parents. They explicitly question whether genetic testing should be allowed in youth sports at all. They reject a "reductionist view of youth athletic participation and performance" and advise physicians to promote the importance of physical activity - including free play - for all kids. And, they say, doctors should encourage parents to "nurture their child's interests in sports regardless of any genetic test that claims to predict athletic potential."
It's heartening to see doctors, who promise to "first do no harm" to their patients, addressing the broader developmental and societal harms that these genetic technologies could pose.