Vietnamese sports authorities use gene tests to detect athletes

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The Vietnamese delegation at the London Olympic Games 2012

Several sports authorities are taking a local company's claim that it can detect athletic genes seriously in the hope it will help improve Vietnamese sports, though experts doubt the validity of such tests.

A report by Tuoi Tre Sunday reported that the Vietnam Athletics Federation (VAF) has recently had the genes of several athletes tested by the Hanoi-based Bionet Vietnam Biotechnology Joint Stock Company.

The federation wants to select young athletes for special training based on the test results, it said. 

Speaking to the newspaper, Nguyen Manh Hung, deputy general secretary of VAF, said a doctor with the Vietnam Sports Hospital recommended the service, known as Sport-Bionet, to them.

Hung said several famous athletes were being tested as an experiment to determine the tests' reliability, adding that the company charged VND6.8 million (US$326) for each test and the results were would be ready in a month.

On its website, the federation also posted an announcement recommending the service to track and field federations at the provincial and municipal level, the newspaper reported.

Meanwhile, Luyen Quoc Hai, director of Bionet VN, told Tuoi Tre that the service, which tests 18 genes related to athletic performance like endurability and quickness, will "help Vietnamese sports [authorities] quickly access global advanced services to improve the quality of athletes."

"On the other hand, it will also help Vietnamese scientists learn more about such technologies and conduct studies to determine more practical applications," he said.

According to Hai, his company began evaluating the service's effects in January this year with the participation of local scientists and officials who wanted to improve the local sports performance.

The general director, however, refused to reveal the names of the scientists and officials involved, the newspaper said.

In the meantime, in interviews with Tuoi Tre, experts raised doubts about the service's ability to help improve Vietnam's sport performance.

Professor Duong Nghiep Chi, former chief of Vietnam Sport Science Institute, said no other country in the world, including the US, could determine a person's athleticism based on gene tests.

"It does not sound right that a company charges VND6-7 million for a sample to test an athlete's endurability, quickness and strength, and to see if that person can become a talented athlete or not," Chi said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Tran Van Khoa, chief of genetic and cell technology department at the Vietnam Military Medical University, said although there were scientific grounds to be able to evaluate someone's athletic ability based on their genes, "athlete selection does not rely on this factor only."

In fact, gene test results should be used just for "reference," because the selection of athletes must depend on a person's talents and passion, Khoa said.

"I can say that the conclusion that there are 18 genes defining athletes' qualities is not quite right, because among thousands of genes many other ones that can define one's sport performance but have yet to be detected by scientists," he added.

Dr. Vu Thai Hong, chief of the Vietnam Sport Science Institute, agreed, saying that genetic tests are just one of the measures used to estimate and categorize athletes, so it is "impossible" to conclude if one athlete is talented or not with their genetic test results only.

"To make achievements, athletes do not just rely on genes. They may have good genes and many related good factors but good genes will be nothing if they do not have good coaches, diets and scientific training methods," said Dr. Nguyen Van Ly, director of the Center for Doping and Sport Medicine.

Meanwhile, an unnamed biotechnology expert with the National University of Vietnam was quoted as saying that the gene method could only be used to detect potential in children.

"For adults, the method is not very meaningful," the expert said.

Bionet's program grabbed headlines immediately after the Vietnamese delegation returned home from the London Olympics without any medals. Local sport authorities have been under fire for the "lack of proper preparations" and "wrong objectives."

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