[ExI] NYT: Born to Run? Little Ones Get Test for Sports Gene

PJ Manney pjmanney at gmail.com
Sun Nov 30 22:22:19 UTC 2008

Passion and dedication are unquantifiable attributes of excellence of
any kind, including athletics.  Reminds me of a LA Clippers vs. LA
Lakers game I attended 8 years ago.  Earl Boykins was playing guard
with the LA Clippers and he blew my mind -- at 5'5" (165 cm), he was
the greatest bundle of energy and speed on the court.  He actually
played ball UNDER both teams, stealing balls and getting away, taking
advantage of an entire layer of play the taller players couldn't
access.  Wild.  If he hadn't been allowed to follow his passion, a
genetically-inclined athletic director would have said, "No way this
kid will amount to anything on a basketball court."

On the flipside, my great uncle was supposedly a musical prodigy.
Debuted as a pianist at Carnegie Hall at the age of 12.  Walked off
the stage after his first performance and said to his mother, "This
was your dream.  Not mine."  And he never played the piano again.

Regarding the below test, even if the gene analysis is true, it's a
scam IMHO.  By elementary school, any decent physical trainer can tell
you which kids are gifted at strength/speed/agility or not.  Hell, I
can!  All you have to do is look at their bodies and their activity.
If you'd like to give me $150 to tell you about your kids' athletic
promise, I'd be happy to take it.  That a gene backs up their ability
is like saying I should check if my daughter has a gene for blue eyes
when I can see her eyes are blue.

This may sound un-H+ to some, but parents really need to give it a
rest and let their kids be kids who can just enjoy kicking a ball
around instead of making them score a goal...  <sigh>



November 30, 2008
Born to Run? Little Ones Get Test for Sports Gene
BOULDER, Colo. — When Donna Campiglia learned recently that a genetic
test might be able to determine which sports suit the talents of her 2
½-year-old son, Noah, she instantly said, Where can I get it and how
much does it cost?

"I could see how some people might think the test would pigeonhole
your child into doing fewer sports or being exposed to fewer things,
but I still think it's good to match them with the right activity,"
Ms. Campiglia, 36, said as she watched a toddler class at Boulder
Indoor Soccer in which Noah struggled to take direction from the coach
between juice and potty breaks.

"I think it would prevent a lot of parental frustration," she said.

In health-conscious, sports-oriented Boulder, Atlas Sports Genetics is
playing into the obsessions of parents by offering a $149 test that
aims to predict a child's natural athletic strengths. The process is
simple. Swab inside the child's cheek and along the gums to collect
DNA and return it to a lab for analysis of ACTN3, one gene among more
than 20,000 in the human genome.

The test's goal is to determine whether a person would be best at
speed and power sports like sprinting or football, or endurance sports
like distance running, or a combination of the two. A 2003 study
discovered the link between ACTN3 and those athletic abilities.

In this era of genetic testing, DNA is being analyzed to determine
predispositions to disease, but experts raise serious questions about
marketing it as a first step in finding a child's sports niche, which
some parents consider the road to a college scholarship or a career as
a professional athlete.

Atlas executives acknowledge that their test has limitations but say
that it could provide guidelines for placing youngsters in sports. The
company is focused on testing children from infancy to about 8 years
old because physical tests to gauge future sports performance at that
age are, at best, unreliable.

Some experts say ACTN3 testing is in its infancy and virtually
useless. Dr. Theodore Friedmann, the director of the University of
California-San Diego Medical Center's interdepartmental gene therapy
program, called it "an opportunity to sell new versions of snake oil."

"This may or may not be quite that venal, but I would like to see a
lot more research done before it is offered to the general public," he
said. "I don't deny that these genes have a role in athletic success,
but it's not that black and white."

Dr. Stephen M. Roth, director of the functional genomics laboratory at
the University of Maryland's School of Public Health who has studied
ACTN3, said he thought the test would become popular. But he had

"The idea that it will be one or two genes that are contributing to
the Michael Phelpses or the Usain Bolts of the world I think is
shortsighted because it's much more complex than that," he said,
adding that athletic performance has been found to be affected by at
least 200 genes.

Dr. Roth called ACTN3 "one of the most exciting and eyebrow-raising
genes out there in the sports-performance arena," but he said that any
test for the gene would be best used only on top athletes looking to
tailor workouts to their body types.

"It seems to be important at very elite levels of competition," Dr.
Roth said. "But is it going to affect little Johnny when he
participates in soccer, or Suzy's ability to perform sixth grade track
and field? There's very little evidence to suggest that."

The study that identified the connection between ACTN3 and elite
athletic performance was published in 2003 by researchers primarily
based in Australia.

Those scientists looked at the gene's combinations, one copy provided
by each parent. The R variant of ACTN3 instructs the body to produce a
protein, alpha-actinin-3, found specifically in fast-twitch muscles.
Those muscles are capable of the forceful, quick contractions
necessary in speed and power sports. The X variant prevents production
of the protein.

The ACTN3 study looked at 429 elite white athletes, including 50
Olympians, and found that 50 percent of the 107 sprint athletes had
two copies of the R variant. Even more telling, no female elite
sprinter had two copies of the X variant. All male Olympians in power
sports had at least one copy of the R variant.

Conversely, nearly 25 percent of the elite endurance athletes had two
copies of the X variant — only slightly higher than the control group
at 18 percent. That means people with two X copies are more likely to
be suited for endurance sports.

Still, some athletes prove science, and seemingly their genetics,
wrong. Research on an Olympic long jumper from Spain showed that he
had no copies of the R variant, indicating that athletic success is
probably affected by a combination of genes as well as factors like
environment, training, nutrition and luck.

"Just think if that Spanish kid's parents had done the test and said,
'No, your genes show that you are going to be a bad long jumper, so we
are going to make you a golfer,' " said Carl Foster, a co-author of
the study, who is the director of the human performance laboratory at
the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. "Now look at him. He's the
springiest guy in Spain. He's Tigger. We don't yet understand what
combination of genes creates that kind of explosiveness."

Dr. Foster suggested another way to determine if a child will be good
at sprint and power sports. "Just line them up with their classmates
for a race and see which ones are the fastest," he said.

Kevin Reilly, the president of Atlas Sports Genetics and a former
weight-lifting coach, expected the test to be controversial. He said
some people were concerned that it would cause "a rebirth of eugenics,
similar to what Hitler did in trying to create this race of perfect

Mr. Reilly said he feared what he called misuse by parents who go
overboard with the results and specialize their children too quickly
and fervently.

"I'm nervous about people who get back results that don't match their
expectations," he said. "What will they do if their son would not be
good at football? How will they mentally and emotionally deal with

Mr. Reilly insisted that the test is one tool of many that can help
children realize their athletic potential. It may even keep an
overzealous father from pushing his son to be a quarterback if his
genes indicate otherwise, Mr. Reilly said.

If ACTN3 suggests a child may be a great athlete, he said, parents
should take a step back and nurture that potential Olympian or N.F.L.
star with careful nutrition, coaching and planning. He also said they
should hold off on placing a child in a competitive environment until
about the age of 8 to avoid burnout.

"Based on the test of a 5-year-old or a newborn, you are not going to
see if you have the next Michael Johnson; that's just not going to
happen," Mr. Reilly said. "But 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. We need to identify these kids from 1 and up, so
we can give the parents some guidelines on where to go from there."

Boyd Epley, a former strength and conditioning coach at the University
of Nebraska, said the next step would be a physical test he devised.
Atlas plans to direct children to Epic Athletic Performance, a talent
identification company that uses Mr. Epley's index. He founded the
company; Mr. Reilly is its president.

China and Russia, Mr. Epley said, identify talent in the very young
and whittle the pool of athletes until only the best remain for the
national teams.

"This is how we could stay competitive with the rest of the world,"
Mr. Epley said of genetic and physical testing. "It could, at the very
least, provide you with realistic goals for you and your children."

The ACTN3 test has been available through the Australian company
Genetic Technologies since 2004. The company has marketed the test in
Australia, Europe and Japan, but is now entering the United States
through Atlas. The testing kit was scheduled to be available starting
Monday through the Web site atlasgene.com.

The analysis takes two to three weeks, and the results arrive in the
form of a certificate announcing Your Genetic Advantage, whether it is
in sprint, power and strength sports; endurance sports; or activity
sports (for those with one copy of each variant, and perhaps a
combination of strengths). A packet of educational information
suggests sports that are most appropriate and what paths to follow so
the child reaches his or her potential.

"I find it worrisome because I don't think parents will be very
clear-minded about this," said William Morgan, an expert on the
philosophy of ethics and sport and author of "Why Sports Morally
Matter." "This just contributes to the madness about sports because
there are some parents who will just go nuts over the results.

"The problem here is that the kids are not old enough to make rational
autonomous decisions about their own life," he said.

Some parents will steer clear of the test for that reason.

Dr. Ray Howe, a general practitioner in Denver, said he would rather
see his 2-year-old, Joseph, find his own way in life and discover what
sports he likes the best. Dr. Howe, a former professional cyclist,
likened ACTN3 testing to gene testing for breast cancer or other

"You might be able to find those things out, but do you really want to
know?" he said.

Others, like Lori Lacy, 36, said genetic testing would be inevitable.
Ms. Lacy, who lives in Broomfield, Colo., has three children ranging
in age from 2 months to 5 years.

"Parents will start to say, 'I know one mom who's doing the test on
her son, so maybe we should do the test too,' " she said.

"Peer pressure and curiosity would send people over the edge. What if
my son could be a pro football player and I don't know it?"

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