Born to run? Genetic tests claim to measure athletic prowess.

In preparation for the Olympics, London is building up excitement with an event organized by Progress Educational Trust (PET) and the Royal Society of Medicine, and exploring the genetic underpinnings of athletic prowess. Supported also by the Wellcome Trust, the event has been given a very catchy title indeed: Genetic Medalling, and will take place tomorrow, June 7th, at 630 pm at the Royal Society of Medicine (1 Wimpole Street, W1G 0AE). What are the genes that confer a competitive edge to people? Are there favorite genetic bakgrounds? Are there individuals simply “born to run”?

Photograph by Sarah Norcross


These issues have implications over the enhancement debate in relation to fairness in sports. When does a genetic or biological advantage become unfair, if ever? Is there a threshold that we should put on individuals being genetically or biologically exceptional?
Similar arguments underpin the new IAAF rules regulating the eligibility of women with hyperandrogenism to compete with other female athletes. The rationale -being disputed in “When gender isn’t a given“- is that women who are too exceptional in terms of hormones have a competitive edge which is unfair over the rest of the female athletes. This was also one of the rationales for Caster Semenya’s gold medal in the 800 meters being taken away at the Berlin World Athletic Championship in 2009.

The implications of this debate on fairness and the construction of categories in sports have not escaped the organizers of the event, who write that “If we do find performance-related genes, how might this affect our attitude to sporting ability, fairness, equity and justice? To take an extreme scenario, would it be fair to segregate some sporting events based on ‘race’ if it turns out that certain ‘races’ have a genetic advantage?” The all concept of race is extremely dubious, as over thirty years of research have shown uncontroversially that within the Homo Sapiens there is no biological basis for our common social understanding of race (Lewontin 1972; Barbujani, Magagni et al. 1997; Serre and Paabo 2004).

Some companies in the US are already making a profit from selling genetic tests which supposedly measure the athletic potentials of kids, for example a company called ‘American International Biotechnology Services‘ and another aptly called Atlas Sports Genetics and claiming to be able to “map” the genetic underpinnings of athletic prowess.
Parents would therefore be encouraged to “invest” on their children and steer their education in one way or the other, for example signing them up with a basketball team or a swimming one. And as higher education is tremendously expensive in the US, the companies selling the tests advertise them as possible decision making tools as to which scholarship parents should aim at.

One of these even planned selling the test at big drugchain stores such as Walgreens (Walgreens is more or less the American equivalent of the British Boots). On May 11, 2011, the FDA stepped in and stopped one of the companies and sent Bill Miller, chief executive of American International Biotechnology Services, a letter demanding justification for marketing his Sports X Factor test without the agency’s authorization.
If you do not believe that you are required to obtain FDA clearance or approval for the Sports X Factor Test Kit, please provide us with the basis for that determination“.
A hearing is expected to take place soon.

As I was reading the article by Rob Stein on the Washington Post (note, thanks to Katrina Karkazis for pointing that out to me), I found a particularly spot-on on some lateral implications of this new quest for the holy genetic grail (or medal!) on the meaning of sports itself. So here’s the comment, and thanks to Bob who kindly reminds us: “What ever happened to playing sports just because it’s FUN?”…

Those interested could also read:

Barbujani G, Magagni A, et al. (1997). An apportionment of human DNA diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U S A 94(9): 4516-9.

Camporesi S, Karkazis K (2011) Opinion: When gender isn’t a given. Special for the Mercury News, May 22, 2011.

Karama C. Neal. (2008) Use and Misuse of “Race” in Biomedical Research. Online Journal of Health Ethics, Vol 5, No 1

Lewontin, R (1972). The apportionment of human diversity. Evolutionary Biology 6: 381-398.

Serre D, Paabo S. 2004. Evidence for gradients of human genetic diversity within and among continents. Genome Research 14(9): 1679-85.

Stein R, (2011) Genetic testing for sports genes courts controversy
Washington Post, May 18.

Pharmacopoeia, or how many pills do we take in a lifetime? A Wellcome Trust exhibition at the British Museum.

How many pills do you normally take every day? And how many pills do we take in a lifetime? and what is the average number of pills that a person takes in his or her own lifetime in the UK? These sort of questions may not be the kind of questions that we ask ourselves everyday, but if you just stop for a second and think about it, you’ll soon realize that the answer may be a surprisingly big number: 14,000 pills! and, to note, this does not include over-the counter pills, which according to estimates would skyrocket the number to about 40,000 pills for each person currently living in the UK per lifetime.
Big numbers may be difficult to visualize, and that is exactly what the “Cradle to grave” installation currently at the British Museum plans to do. I stumbled into this very fine piece of “medical humanities” artwork -as I think it can be called- almost by chance, when walking semi-randomly on a Sunday morning past the worldly renown Egyptian and Greek sections at the British Museum. The installation is the joint effort of textile artist Susie Freeman and family doctor Liz Lee, and I warmly recommend to you all seeing it. “Cradle to grave” is part of a bigger project called Pharmacopoeia that started in 1998, when Freeman and Lee won the Wellcome Trust Sciart Award.
With the words of the artists, the piece focuses on the Western biomedical approach to health and illness, with its increasing reliance on medicines. The installation incorporates a lifetime supply of prescribed drugs knitted into two lengths of fabric and illustrates the medical stories of one woman and one man. Cradle to Grave also contains family pictures and other personal objects and documents, which trace important events in people’s lives and bear captions written by the owners. While Pharmacopoeia’s work is based on real people’s records and on actual medication, the authors decided to create a composite ‘Everyman’ from the real medical prescribing record of four different males and an ‘Everywoman’ from four different females (for a more detailed description on the process that brought to the realization of Cradle to Grave, read here).
Some of the treatments are common to both sexes. Both man and woman start at birth with an injection of vitamin K and several immunizations, and both take antibiotics and painkillers at various times during their life. Other treatments are specific. Obviously only the woman takes the contraceptive pills, and hormone replacement therapy. Only the man takes viagra.
The work is part of the British Museum ethnographic gallery “Living and dying”, and within the gallery the Cradle to Grave installation is contrasted with a number of other societies from the Western Pacific, Nicobar Islands, Native North America and Bolivian Andes, which all invoke the help of spirits or Gods to protect them from harm and to cure them of sickness. Along these lines of contrast, I think that an insightful direction to pursue for the future of the Pharmacopoiea project would be to adopt a wider gaze, not focusing only on the UK. To start with, it would be interesting to draw a comparison with the average number of pills taken in a lifetime by a person currently living in the UK with the average number of pills of -say- a person living currently in the US (I have a sense that may be even higher!), and with the average number of pills taken in other countries in Europe, as -say- Italy (I have a sense that’s going to be lower, but I may be mistaken on this). Possibly even more insightful would be to adopt a wider perspective, broadening the gaze outside high income countries. In this sense, a comparison not only with the number of pills taken by a person living in low and middle income countries, but also with the kind of pills taken by that average person, may yield very powerful insights into the modes of globalization of pharmaceuticals. If this topic tickles your curiosity, you could read the edited collection by Adriana Petryna, Andrew Lakoff and Arthur Kleinman and titled “Global pharmaceuticals. Ethics, markets, practices”.
You can follow the work of Pharmacopoeia artists Susie Freeman, Liz Lee and David Critchley on their website: www.pharmacopoeia-art.net.