Research puts sporting talent tests under scrutiny

Genetic tests used to predict future athletic ability in children have been found to be scientifically unsound. Whilst companies selling them make bold claims, the tests are actually limited in the genetic information they can accurately measure. They also aren’t able to account for a range of other factors that impact athletic success as someone ages.

Athletics stock shotThe research was presented at the British Science Festival in Swansea.

Programmes attempting to spot the next generation of elite athletes are becoming more sophisticated. The research by Professor Mike McNamee from Swansea University and Dr Silvia Camporesi of Kings College London calls for a greater understanding of the scientific and ethical considerations of such testing, and also for the meaning of sport in childhood to be reconsidered.

The study has examined direct to consumer (DTC) genetic tests that claim to identify children’s athletic talents and could potentially encourage parents and coaches to plan for the future sporting success of children who have been tested as having athletic ability.

The study found that while some DTC companies make bold claims, the tests themselves are limited in what genetic information they can accurately measure and so cannot conclusively prove future athletic excellence. They could therefore be considered scientifically unsound. Also, genetic testing for talent identification rest on assumptions about the envisaged future of the child but cannot account for the range of other factors which can impact on athletic success as the child grows from childhood to adulthood.

The research also examines potential legal and moral considerations of using of such tests, looking at whether they could potentially infringe on the rights of the child and limit their prospects to only one sporting future. The study also says that early sport specialisation professionalizing of children could be put them under undue pressure and be harmful. Professor McNamee said: “What we are saying is that there needs to be a fuller understanding of the limitations, reliability and validity of these tests. Using these tests also throws up a whole range of ethical considerations about choice, consent and responsibility for the future wellbeing of the child.  On the basis of these findings we feel that sports physicians and health care professionals involved in sport medicine should not promote such tests, and should discourage parents or others who have accessed DTC tests to act on the basis of the results of the tests.”

Professor Mike McNamee

Professor Mike McNamee is based at the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at the College of Engineering.  His research interests lie broadly in applied ethics, individually or jointly, in engineering, medicine and sport. His areas of expertise are anti-doping policy and ethics, sports ethics, genetic ethics, medical ethics and research ethics. He is a member of the Athlome Project Consortium which seeks to generate the ethically sound environment, interest and capacity needed to develop the specialist knowledge to inform personalised training and injury prevention, as well as doping detection.