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Gene test to spot sports talent

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Ronaldo (left) in action during a match recently.
Ronaldo (left) in action during a match recently.

Matt Scott and Paul Kelso

To aid their search for the next David Beckham

London: For decades the task of identifying emerging football talent has been considered an art rather than a science, exclusively the preserve of wise old pros and sharp-eyed scouts.

Now, it seems leading football clubs are turning to cutting edge laboratory techniques to aid their search for the next David Beckham.

According to a leading sports scientist, at least one football club has explored the possibility of using genetic screening to separate prospective Ronaldos from those destined to join the Sunday morning hackers on their local pitches.

Henning Wackerhage of the school of medical sciences at Aberdeen University said a professional club had made contact with him about the possibility of screening players to discover whether they had a genetic predisposition to athletic excellence.

Dr. Wackerhage prepared an academic paper earlier this year highlighting experiments that had produced enhanced physical performance in mice and rats, and the possibilities offered by gene doping and screening for enhanced athletic performance. He has since suggested that it might be possible to produce the human equivalent of a formula one car by using genetic mutations.

His research was picked up by the unnamed club, which got in touch hoping to exploit nascent gene-screening technology, already freely available in Australia, which tests athletes for a number of genes considered indicative of top-level performance.

Australian firm Genetic Technologies offers a A$100 test that claims to identify whether customers have the muscle function gene ACTN3, found in leading sprinters.

Finding and developing players who can help clubs win titles and reap large profits on the transfer market is the holy grail of football development. Manchester United’s achievement in developing half a team of international players is the benchmark for talent identification, and English professional clubs spend £50 million a year trying to achieve similar success.

Dr. Wackerhage said he was not in favour of using the screening method but said the technology had potential. He also gave a speech earlier this month suggesting that genetic modification could reduce the world record for the marathon, currently just over two hours, to 90 minutes.

— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008


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