Are elite athletes equipped with “sports genes”?

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Record-breaking sprinter Usain Bolt. Image: © Victor Fraile/Corbis

An article in this week’s issue of Sports Illustrated examining the latest science on genetic influence over athletic ability suggests that the world’s elite athletes aren’t necessary equipped higher proportions of superpowered genes. In fact, David Epstein writes that when it comes to genes that research has linked to athletic performance and endurance, the world’s athletic superstars are generally little different from the rest of us, and even when there are clear trends among athletes — prevalence of the genes associated with fast-twitch muscle fibers, for example — there are exceptions too, of elite performers who excel despite seemingly have the genetic odds stacked against them.

Alun Williams, a researchers from the England’s Manchester Metropolitan University set out to determine just how many perfect athletes — those equipped with all 23 performance-related genes that have been identified so far — could statistically exist on the planet, Epstein reports. His conclusion: none. Epstein writes:

“Williams figured that perfection would be rare. After all, a Lance Armstrong comes around only once in a lifetime. But Williams was shocked when he ran the algorithm on his computer and saw that the odds of any person having all the right gene variants for endurance were less than one in a quadrillion… Based on only the 23 chosen genes, there’s almost certainly no genetically perfect athlete alive. In fact, given that a measly 6.8 billion people live on our planet, chances are that nobody has the ideal endurance profile for more than 16 of the 23 genes.”

So, what could it be that distinguishes elite athletes from the rest of us? Epstein suggests it may be down to the effect of genes whose impact hasn’t yet been explored, something outside of our DNA — like hard work or having to run six miles to school from the age of 5, or a combination of nature and nurture currently being explored in the emerging field of epigenetics. As Epstein concludes:

“In the near future the study of genetics promises to tell us more about who we are as individual athletes, how much we can change and how best to go about it. ‘Genes do not act in a vacuum,’ notes Bernd Heinrich, a biologist and author and the 1981 North American 100K champion. Heinrich, who grew up running to school, insists that ‘genes are very plastic. They can be turned on or off. Look at a caterpillar and a butterfly: They’ve got the same genes. One flies, and one can barely crawl.'”

Read the full Sports Illustrated story here.