year, the Progress Educational Trust (PET) conducted a poll as part of its
Wellcome Trust supported project 'Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity: Does It
Matter Where Your Genes Come From?' At three public events held under this
project's auspices, attendees were asked to suggest questions for PET to put to
the public, and the resulting online poll elicited 637 responses. Most of the
responses were summarised in BioNews, but this excluded the final
poll questions about sport, which we wanted to consider in relation to the London
2012 Summer Olympics.
with the Olympics and Paralympics finally upon us, the time has come to publish
and discuss the responses to these final two questions. These questions were
selected from suggestions made by the audience at PET's June 2011 event
'Genetic Medalling'. This saw panellists debate issues such as the role of
genetics in athletic prowess, and whether it is at all legitimate to use the
sort of biological paradigm that prompts us to anticipate a genetic
contribution to sporting achievement.
first question, 'Would you take a genetic test to reveal a hidden sporting
talent?', appealed to us because it spoke to questions raised by sport and
exercise geneticist Dr Alun Williams, who has had to carefully consider such
issues during his work co-authoring the British Association of Sport and
Exercise Sciences' position on 'Genetic Research and Testing in Sport and
the 'Genetic Medalling' event Dr Williams spoke about how genetic testing in
sport raises difficult ethical questions, not least in relation to children. If
test results suggest that a child is likely to be a sporting achiever, will
that child then be subject to undue pressure to live up to (this aspect of)
their potential? Conversely, if test results suggest that a child is unlikely
to be a sporting achiever, will that child then be unduly discouraged from
pursuing legitimate sporting ambitions?
also face adults who would consider taking such a test. Will the results lead
to them thinking too fatalistically about their abilities, causing them to
internalise a sense of limits? Or will the results help them focus their
training more productively?
one takes such a test while harbouring no ambition to excel at sports, does one
risk being left with a sense of frustration at squandered potential? Or could
the results of such a test inspire someone to take up sports with renewed zeal?
those who responded to this poll question, 38 percent said they would take a
test to reveal a hidden sporting talent, while the majority - 62 percent- said
they would not.
the poll question at face value, these responses reflect people's willingness
to take a hypothetical test that is both valid and accurate. However, the
responses may also reflect scepticism about whether such a valid and accurate
test could ever exist.
certain detectable genetic mutations undoubtedly confer physical advantages
(one example being mutations in certain genes that lead to an abundance of
muscle tissue), the extent to which genetics circumscribes our sporting
potential - or to which, conversely, genetics can be transcended through
training and will - continues to be debated.
other sports-related question asked as part of the poll was: 'Most top sporting
competitions are segregated according to sex. In your opinion, should we also
segregate top sporting competitions according to other genetic differences
question alluded to the contentious category of 'race', considered in relation
to genetics as part of the broader 'Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity'
project. Even if the concept of 'race' is deemed to be an imperfect (or indeed,
irredeemably invalid) proxy for aspects of genetic difference or genetic
variation, the question as phrased - without using the word 'race' - still
provocative aspect of this question is its allusion to the fact 'sex' is a
biological difference predicated (largely) upon a genetic difference. We are
not always accustomed to thinking about sex in these terms, as sex is mediated
by the more culturally contingent category of 'gender'. But it is striking
nonetheless to reflect that top sporting competitions are already segregated
according to a genetic difference. And it is not axiomatic that this difference
is clear-cut, as became clear in 2009 when the gender of South African champion
runner Caster Semenya was disputed.
only 7 percent of those who responded to this question thought that top
sporting competitions should be segregated according to genetic differences
besides sex. An overwhelming majority - 93 percent - disagreed with this idea.
response may reflect the prevailing aversion to racial segregation, now
considered a toxic notion in any area of life (sports included). But there is
also a more prosaic case against segregation on the basis of genetic difference,
also raised at 'Genetic Medalling'. Top competitions already seek to establish
the world's greatest sportspeople within a diverse range of categories. Fragmenting
those categories further, by partitioning contestants on genetic grounds beyond
sex, could result in competitions that were neither lucrative for the
organisers and sponsors, nor enticing for the rest of us.
So, it seems that most of you are
happy with the set up of the current Olympic Games, and we hope you enjoy