An arena has been defined by the Oxford dictionary as: “a place or scene of activity, debate, or conflict.” It’s where gladiators fought for survival and glory in Ancient Rome. In modern times, stadiums are spaces where rival teams fight for the trophy while supporters cheer on. Georgios Kavestos (2011) takes it one step further by relating sports to war without guns, where feelings of achievement are related to national pride. Kavestos’ study on the 2000 UEFA Euro Championship shows that there is a surge in national pride in both host nations’ as well as the nations winning the trophy during a game. We see these feelings replayed at all major sporting events be it the Olympics, or at any of the world cup games.
A trickling effect of this phenomena is also visible in the nuclear unit of modern families where children come under social pressures to compete and win. This is primarily led by parents and coaches. A 2003 Baxter-Jones AD et al survey of elite young athletes has revealed that while parents had the greatest influence in introducing a child to a sport, coaches had a stronger influence on the decision to start intense training. Jayanthi N et al’s (2012) study observes that while parents encourage a child’s greater participation in competitive training, they do not want to interfere in a coach-child relationship. Instead, they assume that continued success will follow.
Serious sport is war minus the shooting – George Orwell
Researchers also say that sports specialization and intense training is on the increase in the early to middle childhood years. This is despite collective agreement that sports specialization before puberty increases the risk of injury, psychological stress, and burnout. This has been attributed to the respect, honour, recognition and financial rewards that successful athletes enjoy.
In this race for excellence, what is missing out is the old-fashioned child-determined play, for simple pleasures of fun and joy. It has given way to adults who impose “highly structured, deliberate practice devoted to sports-specific skill development.”
This is in complete contrast to what is prescribed by the True Sport Movement and championed by Canadian Sport for Life, who recommend training to compete to begin after the age of 15.
Add to this mix the heady promise of genetic testing that claims to inform athletes how they can improve performance by understanding the potential revealed in the tests. In an interview to CBC news, Halifax-based company Athletigen CEO, Jeremy Koenig, explained: “We’re talking about the individual’s predispositions for various things, For example, do I have a higher risk of attaining an Achilles tendon injury? Knowing that ahead of time allows us to mitigate the risk.” Established in 2014, this sports genetics company, raised $2.17 million in venture capital funds in two years of its establishment.
Popular genetic tests claim to provide parents and coaches “information on a child’s genetic predisposition for success in team or individual speed/power or endurance sports.” It also declares that the evidence provided by DNA results can help individuals get fit by following various prescriptions that the testing agency shall provide.
These promises have been blatantly made despite a general consensus published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that: “genetic tests have no role to play in talent identification or the individualised prescription of training to maximise performance.” CBC also published an article aimed at individuals, coaches, parents, athletes and sports teams that reiterated the above message from 22 experts in the fields of genomics, sports and exercise.
However, everyone in the sports profession is not ready to reject genetic testing for athletes just yet. In an article published on coach.ca, Angela Dufour and Landon Brown caution readers of the risks associated with the testing, while adding that: “learning more about an athlete’s genome could no doubt help tailor training programs by giving coaches valuable insight and a competitive training edge.”
In February this year, food and multimedia journalist, Vanessa Chalmers decided to review mailorder genetic tests conducted by three companies – Pure Genetic Lifestyle –Sport Analysis for £650, FitnessGenes – £149, and iamYiam – £387. She took the tests for diet and fitness and, surprise, surprise … got three results that contradicted each other.
Chalmers asks: “Surely, if it were written in my genes the results would all be quite similar? Right?”
While one test claimed that she had a special gene that could make her an Olympic sprinter, that was present only in 0.1% of the population, other tests changed the figures to 46% and 50%. While one test said that she was lactose intolerant, the other claimed otherwise. While one claimed that she had a tendency to overeat, another professed that she had a genotype that gave her less appetite and control. In her column at Healthista.com, Chalmers asks: “Surely, if it were written in my genes the results would all be quite similar? Right?”
On questioning the companies, she writes that she got answers “which generally went along the lines of ‘we are working with the best academics in the world’ (FitnessGenes), ‘we have the broadest test of variants on the planet’ (iamYiam), and ‘we are probably the most accurate’ (Pure Genetic Lifestyle).”
So, is this drama a result of ‘transhumanism’ that has gripped a section of our world? Essentially, this is a concept promoted by a group of intellectuals who believe that human body, which can be limited in its capabilities, can be strengthened by the clever use of technology. A prime example is that of British cosmologist Stephen Hawking who extended his contribution to science by using his specialized computer. So, we can interpret it as a way to enhance the human body’s potential by depending on external means such as technology, artificial intelligence, specialized gear, drugs and now, DNA testing.
Or, as Deborah Lupton (2014) proclaims, this is just another mechanism devised by companies to promote health products that primarily only benefit the corporations. Another one of those commercialized promises that utilizes the vulnerabilities and inner desires of human beings.
As citizens, we would question the regulator to find out how companies in the health industry are allowed to promote products and give false promises when the science is still in its infancy and all its outlandish claims have been rejected by experts? Is it a silent push by those in power to encourage citizens to take responsibility for their own health outcomes? How can any government ignore its responsibility to regulate and monitor the industry?
At a time, when the world is still grappling with the consequences of Facebook’s data leak and its manipulation by third-parties, this proliferation of promises that genetic testing holds, is particularly disturbing.
This trend is also dangerous because it ignores ethical implications of how the data collected by these companies will be stored, used and shared. The debate on how health insurance companies will use this data, if they get hold of it, is already raging in many circles. Will they offer discounts to people who reveal information? Or, will they penalize those who want to maintain their privacy? What about the psychological implications for the mentally vulnerable? And, more importantly, what about the discrimination resulting from taking the tests, and the missed opportunities for those who do not have the ability to pay such exorbitant fees to take such meaningless tests.
In their article, Genetic testing is being used in sport – but what are the consequences?Seema Patel and Ian Varley say that genetic analyses of professional athletes does take place, although it’s not very common. NFL players have been tested by the company 23andMe, and it’s claimed that elite UK athletes used genetic testing in the run up to Rio Olympics.
Their study reveals that athletes are interested in knowing ways to enhance performance and reduce injury. However, the authors question the possibility of resulting exclusionary practises. They state: “In the search for the qualities that make up a great athlete, it is important that research investigating genetic associations with sporting traits improves so that genetic testing is based upon good evidence rather than unsupported assumptions about genetics and athletic ability.”
In May 2017, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and the Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission declared the coming into force of the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act. The Act “prohibits genetic discrimination across Canada. It bars any person from requiring individuals to undergo a genetic test or disclose the results of a genetic test as a condition of providing goods or services, or entering into a contract.”
A point to note is that the Bill S-201, as it’s called, was opposed by the Trudeau government, and was passed by dozens of Liberal backbenchers who went against their Prime Minister who maintained that the bill was unconstitutional. This brings us back to the argument as to why are regulators turning a blind eye to the consequences of digital infringement of privacy by big corporations?
Why does this discourse not take into account the fact that an athlete is also a human being with feelings and susceptibilities common to every other non-athlete?
Instead, why are athletes viewed as a product for use by societies to gain brownies in the form of medals and trophies, and parade national pride. It’s unfortunate that we do not see them as people who can lose, and not perform like machines. And, their success is touted by the authorities to claim success in a society that is in reality grappling with the outcomes of unregulated pollution, and malpractices in the food industry.
Whether personal data is collected through fitbits, social media networks, health and fitness apps or genetic testing, it is not done as a special service to society. In fact, it’s detrimental to society as it undermines an individual’s natural instincts, causes mental stress, and reduces self-confidence. More importantly, it imposes unnecessary social pressures that drive young people into depression and more harm.
Do individuals, communities and society always have to prove themselves better than the others? Can national pride not be expressed in other ways such as Bhutan’s Gross Domestic Happiness? Do our children have to become adults before their time? Is competition the only way to prove one’s mettle in society?
These are important questions that we, as citizens of this world, have to ask and discuss not only through courses at university, but also at work, at home, with friends, as parents, volunteers, and responsible citizens. Only if we promote healthy discourse can we resist detrimental actions that drag society into a whirlwind of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
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