Mapping Your Kid’s Genome

January 1st, 2009 by Kathy McManus

Should children be submitted to genetic testing to determine athletic talent?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Scientists mapped the human genome to help the human race. 

Now parents can map Johnny’s genome to help him win his own race—or football and soccer games—by searching for a gene that supposedly predicts exceptional abilities in sports.

Genetic testing for the ACTN3 gene, starting with infants, is now being marketed to parents by a Colorado company, with this tease: “Finding any great Olympic champion normally takes years to determine. What if we knew a part of the answer when we were born?”

In other words:

Mouth swab to identify ACTN3 gene: $149

Identification of future sports-great while still in diapers: priceless.

A 2003 study of elite adult athletes who carry the ACTN3 gene found that variants of it are linked to a natural predisposition to excel in speed and power sports like sprinting and football, as well as endurance sports like distance running.

Sign my kid up, said the mother of a 2-year-old who takes soccer lessons. “I could see how some people might think the test would pigeonhole your child into doing fewer sports or being exposed to fewer things,” she said, “but I think it’s good to match them with the right activity.”

Critics of the testing say matching 2-year-olds with one sport--and at the expense of broader experiences--carries no guarantee that a kid will grow up to bend it like Beckham. “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,” said a genomics expert, who noted that athletic performance is affected by at least 200 genes.

Test results--known as a “Genetic Athletic Talent Report”--come with a certificate called “Your Genetic Advantage.” But it’s a disadvantage that has many talking. “What I fear it would become is one more way for parents to insure that their children never learn to fail,” wrote one mother, who paraphrased a psychologist: ‘If you never fail, you never learn that you can pick yourself back up again.’

Tell us what you think: Is helping a child excel at sports a parental responsibility or a parental obsession? Should genetic testing of children be used to establish sports dominance?