To win the Olympics athletes need dedication, hours of training and lots of perseverance, but they also require one vital ingredient they have no control over: their genes.
Several studies over the past years have examined the connection between our genes and our sporting ability. Are we born with the genes that will make us excel at certain sports or is it just dedicated training, a good diet and other environmental factors that determine success?
According to Dr. Alun Williams, Director of the Manchester Metropolitan University’s Cheshire Sports Genomics Laboratory, scientific evidence suggests that athletic ability is dependent on both genetic and environmental factors.
“The genetic component appears to be around 50-70%, depending on what aspect of ability one is thinking about. Even a very favourable set of genes will not automatically make someone a good athlete, let alone a champion,” he said. “But certainly, if someone has a very unfavourable set of genes, in many sports no amount of training and diet will make them a champion.”
And these findings are evident when one looks at past trends of Olympic winners. Long distance running, for instance, has long been dominated by athletes of East African descent, sprinting dominated by those with West African origins and weight-lifting and other strength and power oriented sports by Caucasians. Their success is determined both by the fact that they have the correct genetic variation to make them excel at a particular sport and also that their training and environmental conditions are moulding them into record breakers.
“I believe that anyone can be a world-beater in any sport – it is just that some people (with ‘good genes’) will find it easier, that is, require less training and practice than others (with ‘less good genes’),” says Dr. Colin N Moran, MSB Lecturer in Health and Exercise Sciences from University of Stirling, Scotland’s University for Sporting Excellence.
Similarly, Dr. Williams says strict training and practice is more likely to be enough to excel in sports like golf but unlikely to be sufficient to make champions in sports like football and “certainly not enough” in disciplines like the 100 metre track sprint.
These “good genes” give rise to certain physical characteristics which, when combined with correct training and a healthy lifestyle, give certain players an added advantage over others. For example, sprinters have starkly contrasting physical structures compared to weightlifters. According to an article entitled “Genetics’ Role in Athletic Performance,” sprinters usually have long legs, narrow hips and small upper bodies while weightlifters are usually short, have stumpy limbs, a heavy upper body, higher body fat and a predisposition to flat feet.
How much an athlete with favourable genes is exposed to a certain type of sport in their country also influences their athletic ability. The amount of importance given to a particular sport by the people around us and the resources available to enhance one’s skills in that sport will likely contribute toward athletic success. For example, Australia and India may both have athletes with good genes but Australia places much greater importance on investing in sports excellence so they can produce winners at the Games each time. India, in comparison, doesn’t do too well at the Olympics. That’s because it isn’t able to invest in training resources as much as Australia and also because when it comes to sport, a lot more importance is given to cricket — India’s national passion.
As research into the connection between genes and sports continues, scientists have found a “power gene” which can set apart athletes successful in power sports (like football, weight-lifting and sprinting) from those who may not perform as well. A variant of the gene called alpha-actinin-3 (ACTN3) is associated with the presence of a muscle protein found only in the fast-twitch fibres required for sprinting, which almost every male Olympic sprinter and power athlete possesses. According to Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans, authors of ‘Olympics: Genetically enhanced Olympics are coming’, “about half of Eurasians and 85% of Africans carry at least one copy of this ‘power gene.’ The billion or so other people who lack the 577R allele might wish to reconsider their Olympic aspirations.”
Furthermore, studies have indicated that kids who get the right combination of variants from their parents to make ACTN3 are likely to succeed in power or endurance sports. As Jordan Lite claims in his study “Can genes predict athletic performance?”, children who get two copies of the X variant from both parents don’t produce ACTN3, hence, they might excel at endurance sports such as cross-country skiing, distance running or swimming. Those with one copy of the X variant and one of the R variant will produce some protein and may excel in sports such as soccer or cycling. However, those who have two copies of the R variant will make the most ACTN3 and achieve most success in both power and endurance sports.
The significance of good genes in producing successful athletes sheds light on the concept of gene doping or gene alterations and whether this would become commonly accepted in the future. Currently, gene doping to boost athletic ability is strictly forbidden at the Olympic Games but for certain health conditions and diseases, it has been a saviour.
But Dr. Moran believes it won’t be too long before gene therapy is accepted in sports, telling us “I believe it will happen soon and that sport will have to learn to deal with it.”