Genetic medalling – what do genes tell us about sporting ability?

Genetic causation in sporting ability challenges our notions of the level playing field. But we can use the knowledge we are developing to undermine the importance of race and emphasise the person
Rachael Panizzo
2 August 2011

Genetic studies of race are understandably controversial. Biology has in the past been used to legitimize and perpetuate racial stereotypes, and to justify eugenic practices, slavery and genocide. The human genome can reveal incredible detail relating to an individual’s ethnicity. Using modern genetic techniques it is now possible to broadly identify an individual’s geographic origins, in some cases down to the particular village. These techniques can be powerful tools in the study of human evolution and the genetic basis of certain diseases, but could easily be misused. The implications of this area of research were the topic of debate in a series of events exploring genetics and ethnicity organized by the Progress Educational Trust (PET) and supported by the Wellcome Trust - Genes, ancestry and racial identity: Does it matter where your genes come from?

Sporting competitions can sometimes draw attention to racial differences. It is widely commented upon, for example, that at the elite level most long distance races are won by athletes of East African origin, whereas sprint races are almost exclusively won by athletes of West African ancestry. Although few other clear examples exist, we tend to assume, because of its physical nature, that differences in sporting ability must be due to genetic differences between athletes. Is sporting ability just a matter of good genes, and is some of this genetic advantage associated with ethnicity? Is a race won before it even takes place? If there is a strong genetic component to sport performance, it opens the door to genetic testing for ‘sport’ genes, gene doping and segregation of sporting events along genetic lines. These issues were discussed at the final event in the PET series, Genetic medalling, held at the Royal Society of Medicine in June.

What do we know about the relationship between genetics and race – is race a biological concept? A key finding of the Human Genome Project and subsequent population genetics research is that we are far more alike genetically than we are different, a discovery in reassuring agreement with our modern values of equality and diversity. As a species, humans are 99.7 per cent identical – which leaves only 0.3 per cent of genetic variation between individuals.  

Within this narrow scope for variation, however, some of the genetic differences in individuals tend to cluster according to ancestry and geographic origin, so that individuals from different regions can be distinguished at a genetic level. Recent research, for example, has been able to accurately predict the village of origin of individuals in areas of rural Scotland, and to distinguish between neighbouring African populations. This genetic variation is subtle and continuous rather than discrete, and reflects the pattern of human migration over the course of evolution.

This lack of distinct boundaries between human populations therefore challenges the concept of a genetic basis to socially-defined racial categories. Human migration and increasing 'gene flow' between populations is blurring these boundaries further.

Is any of this genetic ancestry information useful? Some diseases are known to be more prevalent among certain ethnic groups, and certain ethnic groups respond differently to medicines. But because self-identified ethnic categories don't necessarily have a biological correlate, they are often a poor proxy for predicting disease susceptibility. Where the specific genes involved are known, a more sophisticated approach using personalised genetic testing would circumvent the need to make clinical decisions based on ethnicity, and focus instead on the individual patient.

Even if genetic ancestry information might replace ethnicity in medicine and other contexts, it still presents a number of ethical issues in terms of how the information is interpreted and used. Just as with rare diseases, there is a risk of marginalizing ‘rare’ populations, with fewer medicines and treatments tailored to them, and shifting investment in research and resources towards more populous or wealthy demographics. Without proper safeguards, health insurers might use genetic ancestry information to increase premiums or refuse coverage for certain groups. The use of any genetic information in this way is illegal at present in the United States, and UK insurers have agreed a voluntary and temporary moratorium.

The potential applications extend beyond medicine. In 2009 the UK Border Agency began the Human Provenance Pilot Project, which aimed to determine whether genetic testing could establish the “true country of origin” of asylum seekers to the UK, amid serious concerns from scientists that the plans were fundamentally flawed, confusing genetic ancestry and geographic origin with citizenship and national borders.

What part does genetics and ethnicity play in sport performance? At the Genetic medalling debate, Dr Alun Williams, a sport and exercise geneticist, said that there was growing evidence that genetics does play a large part in sporting ability, for characteristics such as oxygen uptake, strength, endurance-related ability, and even elite athlete status. Whether any ‘sport’ genes were linked to ethnicity has not been studied specifically, he said. John Dupree, professor of philosophy of science at the University of Exeter, agreed that it would be unlikely for ethnicity to be systematically correlated to sporting performance, but that it was possible that genetic ancestry might be linked to specific ‘sport’ genes, pointing to the record of East African long distance runners and West African sprinters.
The science writer Connie St Lewis warned against conflating race or ethnicity with genetics, and said that racial stereotypes were common in sport. She described the scandal involving the French football team, whose current manager, Mr Blanc, allegedly planned to impose a quota limiting the number of players of African and North African origin in the French football squad, in favour of players with “our culture, our history”. African players were “large, strong, powerful”, he said, and implied that white players instead had “a certain intelligence for the game”.
The panel agreed that as more was understood about the link between sporting ability and genetics, the more this information would be exploited. Genetic testing would become just another “tool in the box” for elite athletes to understand their physical potential, and were likely already in use. Gene doping – the use of genetic material to enhance athletic performance – has been banned since 2003, but some products are available illegally to athletes. The synthetic virus Repoxygen, originally developed to treat anemia, can insert the erythropoeitin (EPO) gene into the body and instruct it to make more red blood cells, undetected, which enhances muscle performance.
Would genetic testing among the general population, or school children, inspire or discourage participation in sport? Several companies already offer such tests, marketed specifically to parents to predict their child’s athletic potential. These tests, apart from not being validated scientifically, promote a biological determinist perspective, and imply that if you don't have the genes, it's not worth participating. In focusing exclusively on genes, we are ignoring the powerful social and environmental factors that draw people to particular sports and allow them to excel.

If some genes really do confer a major advantage, then athletes are competing on an unlevel playing field. Is there a case for genetic segregation of athletes in sporting events? One could consider separating men and women in sport competitions a form of genetic segregation that already exists – enforced because of the recognised effects of male hormones like testosterone on performance. But even for these clear categories, the boundaries can be uncertain, as in the case of the female athlete Caster Semenya, who was publicly exposed as having an intersex identity when her gender was questioned. Defining the boundaries of other genetic categories would be more problematic, and risks stigmatisation of athletes and invasions of privacy, especially if the genes in question are related to ethnic identity.

So does it matter where your genes come from? It is certainly possible to gain information about your ancestry from your own genome, and this is likely to become more sophisticated as genetic techniques improve. Genetic ancestry tests are already widely available to consumers, even if unreliable and unvalidated. Ethnicity information might be a stepping stone to identifying the underlying genetics associated with disease susceptibility, drug response, or even sporting ability. It seems that these technologies, once available, are inevitable.

Debate should focus not on whether they should or should not be allowed, but how to ensure that they are used in away that respects an individual’s privacy and confidentiality, and protects against discrimination. 

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