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GENE GENIES
STEVE RUSHIN
August 29, 2011
DNA testing companies promise they can predict your kid's sports success, but where's the fun in that?
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August 29, 2011

Gene Genies

DNA testing companies promise they can predict your kid's sports success, but where's the fun in that?

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When nine-year-old Kayla Parsons qualified for this week's Golf.com World Amateur in Myrtle Beach, S.C., the obvious question was, What took her so long? She's pushing the big One Oh—in stark contrast to the Argentine soccer star Leonel Angel Coira, who just signed with Real Madrid at age seven.

As the age of athletic precocity drops, like ominous winter weather, into the mid-single digits, I'm tempted to seek brilliance in my own children. Not long ago, when my five-year-old daughter called a passing butterfly a "flutter-by"—a far better word than the original—I took it as a sign that she'll one day be a great etymologist (who studies words) or entomologist (who studies insects).

"Never make predictions, especially about the future," Casey Stengel said. But we can't help ourselves. America has a predilection for predictions, for five-day forecasts and Oscar pools and mock drafts. We want to know what our children will be when they grow up before they've grown up. This explains the famous Tiger Mom (Amy Chua, who forced her daughter to play piano at age three) as well as the Tiger Dad (Earl Woods, who had his son playing golf at age two).

Kayla's website describes her as a "future golf pro." She's been playing since age five, has made two holes in one and is the youngest participant—by five years—in the Amateur's 28-year history. I have a two-year-old son, but the only dimpled thing he likes striking is his sister. It's too early to tell if he'll excel at golf, or at any other sport. Or so I thought before I heard about—cue sinister music—home genetic testing.

Home genetic testing kits have been available for several years now. Send a saliva sample (and 99 bucks) to the firm 23andMe, and they'll offer insight into your future, "from baldness to muscle performance. Discover risk factors for 97 diseases."

If your life is a novel and you'd like a peek at the last page, home genetic testing may be for you. Which means it's also for the most ambitious of Little League parents, eager to know if their son is likely to play centerfield for the Red Sox but dissatisfied with the unscientific answer. ("He's not.")

And so companies with Orwellian names now market home kits specifically to sports parents. If you send $200 and a sample of your child's DNA to a company called Sports X Factor, they promise to return test results that will help make "children's sports choices more appropriate." And the folks at Atlas Sports Genetics, for $169, will administer the Atlas First SportGene® Test, "geared specifically to show athletes, trainers and interested individuals where their genetic advantage lies."

Both tests study the ACTN3 genotype—the SportGene® that, broadly speaking, can reveal the prevalence of fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers, which can in turn mean the difference between Junior's playing wide receiver or becoming a marathoner. And yet, as the father of four children six and under, I find these tests have my facial muscles fast- and slow-twitching.

I could stomach sending a company my child's DNA. (Samples are readily available on every surface of the house.) And I understand the temptation: As children are prodded to pick one sport at an ever-younger age, it might be nice to know if your baby's dribble will one day become a crossover.

But genetic testing opens a Pandora's box for everyone, and a Pandora's box-and-one for sports parents specifically. The question is not just whether home genetic tests can be significantly predictive, though the Federal Trade Commission has warned, "A healthy dose of skepticism may be the best prescription." The more troubling question is: Do you really want to know if your child is genetically disposed to thrive in one sport—or in no sport at all? It's like that dorm-room conversation starter: If you could learn the date of your own death, would you want to know? Genetic testing could tell you the date, more or less, that your son's dream of playing point guard for the Celtics will die. But won't he learn that soon enough, the old-fashioned way?

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