Back in 2008, the New York Times published an article about the introduction of a genetic testing service that promised to let you know if your child was destined for athletic celebrity. “[I]If you wait until high school or college to find out if you have a good athlete on your hands, it will be too late by then, “said the president of Atlas Sports Genetics. “We have to identify these kids from one point onwards so we can give the parents some guidelines on where to go from there.”
Since then, the scientific community has pretty unanimously dismissed that perspective as crap. In 2015, for example, two dozen of the world’s leading sports genetics researchers published a consensus statement in the British Journal of Sports Medicine affirming that “genetic testing does not play a role in identifying talent”. As far as I can tell, Atlas has gone out of business.
It’s not that genes don’t affect your athletic potential. On the contrary, as books like David Epstein’s The Sports Genes show. But every single gene – atlas looked at one called ACTN3 – has a negligible impact on athletic potential. Even for a simple trait like height, which is clearly influenced by genes, the most recent estimate is that 9,900 different gene variants together explain 40 percent of the variation in height from person to person.
Nevertheless, science is marching on. Studies have now identified dozens of genes associated with speed / strength and endurance performance. According to a study from 2019, the number of companies offering sports tests directly to consumers continues to rise from around 20 in 2013 to almost 70 in 2019. So the researchers decided to try a real-world case study: they tested the DNA of five Olympic athletes and compared them to 500 normal people to see if the latest genetic research could have predicted their success. The results appear in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance.
One of the fun details of this study is that it openly identified the athletes who are all British Athletics Olympians:
- Andrew Steele, a 44.94 400-meter runner and 4 x 400-meter Olympic medalist
- Greg Rutherford, an Olympic gold and bronze medalist in the long jump
- Craig Pickering, a 10.14 100-meter runner and 4×100-meter world championship medalist
- Tom Lancashire, a 3:33.96 1,500 meter runner
- Andrew Lemoncello, an 8:22.95 steepler and 2:13:40 marathon runner
Pickering is also the first author of the work: he led the study as part of his PhD under the supervision of John Kiely of the Institute of Coaching and Performance at the University of Central Lancashire. While leading the study, he also worked for a genetic testing company called DNAFit – more on this below – (he left the company in 2019 and has since taken on a talent development role at Athletics Australia).
The genetic test examined 48 genetic variants that were identified as associated with speed-power success in previous studies and 64 variants that were associated with endurance success. For each variant, the test persons received two points if they had two copies of the “good” variant, one point for one copy and zero points for no copies. The total speed, strength and endurance score was calculated based on the percentage of points scored as a fraction of the total available score. For example, the 48 Speed-Power variants offer a total of 96 points; An athlete with a total of 48 points would have a speed power score of 50 percent.
The results were compared to a control group of 503 white Europeans, as all athletes had predominantly white European ancestry (although Lancashire’s mother is Mauritian).
At first glance, the speed-power results are encouraging. The three speed power athletes have the highest results, with Steel at 44.8, Rutherford at 43.8, and Pickering at 42.7. The two endurance athletes have lower numbers, both coming in at 37.5. The average for the control group is 39.4, which, as expected, is lower than for the speed-power stars, but still higher than for the speed-dependent endurance stars.
However, the picture is much bleaker when looking at the full distribution of results in the control group, which is shown in the following histogram. The vertical bars indicate how many people have scored points within a certain area: for example, slightly more than 50 people have scored between 41 and 42 points. I’ve sketched in the rough positions of the five Olympians (indicated by event). Now the test results don’t look that useful anymore. A total of 68 people in the control group achieved higher results than all Olympic speed power athletes!
(Figure: International Journal of Exercise Physiology and Performance)
The train turns even further off the track if you look at the stamina values. Once again, the control group has many people with seemingly better endurance genes than the endurance Olympians. Worse still, all three speed-power athletes (with 43.8 to 47.7 points) outperform the endurance athletes (with 39.8 to 42.2 points) in terms of their endurance potential. Rutherford ran a 2:10:46 half marathon last year, but that doesn’t quite match his Olympic long jump title.
OK, point made. This genetic test would have been somewhere between useless and counterproductive if these five athletes had taken it as teenagers (or worse, toddlers). And none of them had to take a test to demonstrate their athletic potential: they all won national or international titles as teenagers. What sports scientist Carl Foster David Epstein said in The Sports Gene remains true: “If you want to know if your child is going to be fast, the best genetic test currently available is a stopwatch. Take him to the playground and have him face the other children. “
Where does the field go from here? When I asked Pickering about the study, he suggested that there were two competing hypotheses: either genetic testing for Talent ID is basically useless, or we just need better genetic testing. At this point, I don’t think we can rule out either hypothesis – but whatever the future holds, it’s clear that we now have nowhere near a useful test.
I was also curious what DNAFit thought of the results, as they provided genetic testing for the study and kept Pickering busy while he worked on it (although the study itself was separate from his employment). But there are fewer contradictions than I thought. DNAFit’s Code of Conduct has always rejected the idea of identifying future stars: their first rule is to refuse to test anyone under the age of 18, and their second rule is not to allow genetic testing to identify talent or predict athletic ability use.
Instead, DNAFit and other similar companies are selling the idea that by knowing your DNA you can figure out what type of exercise – strength versus endurance, for example – you respond best to and what types of injuries you may be particularly prone to. The claim about prescribing training is also still very controversial and was rejected by the 2015 scientific consensus statement mentioned above. But (as I discussed in a 2016 article on DNAFit research) it’s more plausible than identifying talent, and nothing in the new study contradicts that idea.
In conclusion, let me say that this study proves that Olympic athletes are genetically no different from the rest of us and that the way to the top is all about hard work and positive thinking. But I don’t think that’s true. Talent and training ability are written in our genes, no doubt, but in a way that is infinitely nuanced and unfathomably complex. Success and failure only look predetermined in retrospect – and even then, as this study shows, the hindsight remains rather bleak. The only way to find out how fast you can be is to give it all you have. I hope it stays that way.
If you’d like to learn more about Sweat Science, visit me on Twitter and Facebook, subscribe to the email newsletter, and read my book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Strangely Elastic Limits of Human Achievement.
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