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Talent identification in sport: practices and issues.

Sport is no different to other domains such as science, music and the arts, where the attainment of excellence is the primary goal of many individuals. (1) Expert performance is acknowledged by spectators and sponsors alike, but achievement of excellence is no easy feat as the gap between success and failure in elite competition continues to narrow and the weight of national pride and expectation continues to increase. (2) Consequently, the study of expertise in sport, together with the identification and development of future elite performers, has become a popular focus area within the sport sciences. (1)

A basic definition of talent identification (TI) encompasses the recognition of a natural endowment or ability of superior quality. But, identifying a talented athlete within sport is multifaceted and complex. Talent in sport is identified by characteristics that are at least partially genetically determined, affected by numerous environmental conditions and currently difficult to determine accurately. (3)

The disparity between practice and theory involved in TI has become apparent and, while researchers are currently closing this gap, the advent of gene mapping and the subsequent potential for gene testing and therapy have added a new dimension to this endeavour.

Systematic approaches to TI

Systematic TI is no new phenomenon. Several countries, in particular the former 'Eastern block' countries, have applied systematic TI since the 1960s and early 1970s with astounding results during the Olympics of 1972, 1976 and 1980. These successes were ascribed to their thorough TI processes adopted in the late 1960s. (4)

Western countries also initiated systematic TI programmes, albeit with their own unique variation and mostly without the associated political ideology. Australia was the first Western country to implement such a programme, the Sport Search Programme, in 1994. (5) South Africa, in an endeavour to find solutions for the disproportionate representation of the South African population in representative teams, commissioned research in the early nineties to investigate solutions to the problem. (6) An adapted version of the Australian sport search programme was subsequently applied in the late nineties, and follow-up sport-specific programmes involving selected national sport federations were planned, but all these efforts lost momentum with continuous changes in the national governance of sport.

Other countries such as the UK also adopted the Australian concept of TI and embarked on a systematic and organised approach. However, these systematic approaches to TI, although very inclusive, proved to be very expensive and the returns did not seem to justify the costs, especially for team sports. Subsequently, more focused approaches that rely on multidisciplinary inputs have been initiated with evidence of more success. (3)

Gene mapping and therapy for sports doping

The elucidation of the complete human genome with approximately 30 000 different genes has led to new possibilities, not only for the diagnosis and prevention of a wide variety of diseases, but also for the purpose of TI. Close to 200 genes, or loci linked to or associated with human performance and health-related fitness, have already been identified. (7) Testing such genes, some propose, can be a legitimate aspect of TI and training programme development--a valid adjunct to current physiological, biochemical and psychological testing. (8) Gene technology companies are already supplying testing kits for the purpose of identifying selected genes (e.g.

In addition, the knowledge of gene mapping may be used for the design of new therapeutics, including gene therapy, based on DNA sequence information. Gene therapy may not only be applied for the treatment of serious diseases, but also for less life-threatening situations or injuries such as sports injuries. (9) In addition, athletes may be able to use gene therapy to improve their bodies for better performance. Many genes with the potential to enhance athletic performance are available. The most relevant of these for performance enhancement are erythropoietin (EPO), growth factors, myostatin and endorphins. (9)

Gene therapy also opens the door for gene doping, a practice disapproved by both the International Olympic Committee ... and the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Risks of gene doping and ethics involved in the detection thereof

A number of risks are associated with gene doping, especially where gene transfer vectors are produced in non-controlled laboratories. (9) Furthermore, the detection of gene doping is currently very difficult and evokes many ethical concerns. (10)


While the need for TI practices and the drive for countries to prove dominance at major international competitions remain, researchers are interrogating the scientific justification for current and past practices and are calling for more focused research in this area. For a more comprehensive evaluation of current practices see the academic review commissioned by Sport Scotland. (4) These endeavours to find more appropriate methods of TI will continue as long as the drive for success in the international arena persists. Although gene testing and gene therapy/doping have the potential to dominate TI in the future, the myriad of ethical issues and health risks of disreputable therapy practices may delay its impact.

Further reading

Foddy B. The ethics of genetic testing in sport. International Sport Med Journal 2006; 7(3): 216224. (Online.) (accessed 10 February 2008).

McGregor B. The use of gene-based technologies for talent identification in high-performance sport. Unpublished document of Bond University, Robina, Queensland, Australia. (Online.) www. use of gene-based technologies for talent identification.doc (accessed 28 March 2008).

Moore C, Khoury MJ. ACTN3 variants and athletic performance. (Online.) http://www.cdc. gov/genomics/hugenet/ejournal/ACTN3.htm (accessed 10 December 2007).


(1.) Williams AM, Reilly T. Talent identification and development in soccer. J Sports Sci 2000; 18: 657- 667.

(2.) Davidson R. Editorial. J Sports Sci 2006; 24(8): 805.

(3.) Pearson DT, Naughton GA, Torode M. Predictability of physiological testing and the role of maturation in talent identification for adolescent team sports. J Sci Med Sport 2006; 9(4): 277-287.

(4.) Wolstencroft E, ed. Talent Identification and Development: An Academic Review (A report for Sportscotland by the University of Edinburgh). Edinburgh: Sportscotland, 2002. (Online.) uk/ChannelNavigation/Resource+Library/ Publications/Talent+Identification+and+D evelopment+Programme.htm (accessed 30 March 2008).

(5.) Hoare D. The Australian national talent search programme. Coaching Focus 1996; 31: 3-4.

(6.) Du Randt R, Headley N, Loots JM, Potgieter JR, De Ridder JH, Van der Walt TSP. An updated contract research report conducted on behalf of the Federation for Movement and Leisure Sciences for the Department of National Education, South Africa. An unpublished document of the University of Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University), 1993.

(7.) Rakinen T, Bray MS, Hagberg JM, et al. The human gene map for performance and health-related fitness phenotypes: the 2005 update. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2006; 38(11): 1863-1888.

(8.) Human Genetics Commission of Australia (HGSA) Position Statement. Genetic testing and sport performance, 2007. (Online.) HGSAPositionstatementonGeneticTestinga ndSportPerfo%E2%80%A6.pdf (accessed 23 March 2008).

(9.) Haisma, HJ, De Hon O, Sollie P, Vorstenbosch J. Gene Doping. Capelle aan den Ijssel: Netherlands Centre for Doping Affairs, 2004. (Online.) http// campagnes/publicaties (accessed 22 March 2008).

(10.) Miah A, Rich E. Genetic tests for ability?: Talent identification and the value of an open future. Sport, Education and Society 2006; 11(3): 259-273. (Online.) www.andymiah. net/writing.html (accessed 10 March 2008).


Professor and Head, Department of Human Movement Science, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth
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Title Annotation:More about ... Sports Science
Author:Du Randt, Rosa
Publication:CME: Your SA Journal of CPD
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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