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Science - Genetic Olympics - Grade 7

Subject: Science

Grade: 7

Lesson Objectives: To have students understand the impact of genetics on sporting performance. To have students consider the impact of 'genetic doping.'

Common Core Standard: 7L 1.1: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.



Say: In 2021, the Olympic motto had a makeover. Instead of "Faster, Higher, Stronger." officials added the word "together." Now, it's "Faster, Higher, Stronger - Together." "Together" is an important addition, as it stresses the international community of athletes. They are competing against each other but united in their desire to do their best. 

Along with the motto, the Olympic Games have a creed that states: "The important thing in The Olympic Games is not so much to win but to take part, just as the important thing in life is not the victory but the struggle."

Ask: What do you think of the motto and creed? What do you think about the Olympic Games in general?


Go through this lesson slowly and sensitively. Answer any questions that may arise and correct students if they think that genes make someone superior. You may even want to preface this with a brief discussion on how it's wrong to judge other people based on what they can or cannot do physically. The idea is that genes give athletes a physical advantage in some sports, but they aren't superior humans.

Ask: What makes an Olympic champion?

Try to elicit the need to train hard, dedication, and natural ability.

Say: Any athlete who participates in the Olympics has spent years training hard, dedicating themselves to being the best they can be. Some athletes have the advantage of readily available training facilities; some have to make do with very little outside help. Either way, they've worked to be considered the best of the best.

Years of training are essential to athletic success. Without training, there is no hope of winning a medal. However, many athletes have another advantage—their genes. 

Even though everyone has the potential to be great, genetic factors do influence physical ability and may give others an advantage over their competitors. What, if anything, officials should do about this is causing a lot of problems.

Read the following excerpt.

Say: An article in the magazine Nature states, "More and more, genes are now being linked to athletic prowess, and future Olympic officials will have to wrestle with the implications. Are the games, in fact, a showcase for hardworking [athletes]? And if Olympic rule-makers admit that the genetic landscape is uneven, should they then test every athlete and hold separate competitions for the genetically ungifted?"

Explain in plain language what this excerpt means. Then watch the Alleles and Genes video.

Say: Studies have revealed that some Olympic sprinters and power sport athletes carry the allele R577. Our genes, what our parents pass down to us that make us who we are, are made of two alleles. Alleles are simply the parts of a gene. We get one from our mother and one from our father. 

The R577 allele improves strength, muscle function and protects the muscles from damage. These top performers have this allele naturally. An athlete can boost its function artificially.

Here's an example: Erythropoietin (EPO) is a hormone that your kidneys make. It plays a fundamental role in making red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. EPO is essential for efficient athletic performance. All healthy people have some EPO, but an athlete can improve their performance if they take a dose of EPO.

Say: There are between 20,000 and 25,000 genes in the human body. All of this genetic information is called a genome. Several hundred of these genes are activated if an athlete takes EPO. This is called blood doping or gene doping.

Ask: Do you think it's fair for an athlete to improve their performance with blood doping?

Group Activity

Prompt students to form groups of four to six and ask them to consider the following. Encourage five minutes of group discussion after each point. Alternately, if you are running out of class time, you could prepare this as a worksheet for homework.

Say: We test athletes to make sure they are not taking performance-enhancing drugs. Tests for so-called gene doping are becoming more sophisticated. There have been cases where athletes have claimed that they did not know that something that they had taken, a medicine, for example, would result in a positive test. Should we increase the number of gene tests?

Say: Imagine that a woman runs the fastest ever marathon. Routine tests after her victory are negative, but officials find out that she has a very high level of natural EPO. This gives her an enormous advantage. Should she be given a disadvantage at the beginning of the race (should she start farther back than her competitors; should officials add time to her run before the race starts)? Is this fair to do? How could this create problems for other athletes in the future?

Say: We have seen that some athletes have a natural advantage. A few others cheat and take artificial performance boosters. Should we set a standard for all sports and allow athletes to boost their natural levels to match the highest-performing player? This would mean allowing athletes to take drugs to improve their abilities. 

Say: How would you feel if someone made you start at a disadvantage because you naturally had more of something that made you a stronger athlete? 


Ask the students for their opinions. How big will the gene-doping problem become in the future?


Written by Steve Thompkins

Education World Contributor

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