18 May 2015
ByAppeared in BioNews 802
BBC2, Sunday 10 May 2015
Presented by Gabby Logan
BBC Two's The Olympic Journey: Born Winners begins as a straightforward nature vs nurture debate, offering a look into the science of what it takes to become a winner. But when presenter Gabby Logan sends samples of her and her family's DNA to be tested, it is clear that this programme is not just a factual discussion - it also addresses the future consequences of genetic testing in the sporting world.
Logan, a BBC Sport presenter and ex-Wales Commonwealth Games gymnast, interviews key people in this conversation - scientists, athletes and sports coaches - and finds an engaging balance between science and ethics.
The scientists all conclude that a DNA test only tells us whether someone is more likely to be a sprinter or a marathoner. The difference between the two lies in genes that determine speed and power (to be a sprinter or a jumper) and endurance (to be a marathoner).
A sprinter has explosive strength but tires out quickly, while an endurance athlete is less strong but has greater stamina. These were the types of tests that Logan's family did, which concluded that her nine-year-old twins Reuben and Lois were essentially a 50:50 split in genetic makeup, with Reuben being ever so slightly more of a sprinter than a marathoner. This is in comparison to Logan's own results, which showed her to be more of an endurance athlete - the opposite of what you might expect from a gymnast.
Logan quips that the results are not as 'sci-fi or as dystopian' as she thought they would have been, her ideas of genetic testing being fuelled by films like Gattaca, a 1997 sci-fi which portrays a future world where people are discriminated against based on their genetic information. Importantly, Logan makes the point that genetics do not determine one's future, and that the information about her children was purely for interest and not in order to push her kids towards any one particular sport.
In parallel with hearing about Logan's family, the show treats us to a peek into the life of the Olympic, Commonwealth and European long-jump champion Greg Rutherford with his young son, Milo. The Rutherfords are in the process of building a long jump pit in their back garden, and this raises the question of how the environment will shape Milo's future. Logan asks Greg Rutherford how he would raise Milo if he didn't have the genes to be an athlete, to which he replied that he had always aspired for Milo to be a golfer!
Sports coaches pitched into the conversation with caveats around genetic testing. The coaches placed a greater role for characteristics such as motivation, happiness, competitive spirit and resilience. Then, of course, there are external factors, such as access to good sports facilities, a strong relationship with one's coach and ample preparation. This discussion adds a unique perspective to the debate, as the idea of psychology, a mental edge, a healthy mind and team spirit are often left out of discussions on nature vs nurture, favouring an almost Freudian view into the early childhood of an athlete.
This is a welcome trend in British television. There is now a more integrative and interdisciplinary view of success, looking at happiness and mental health as inherent factors that contribute to overall wellbeing. As one of the coach says, 'Attitude can be coached and measured; it isn't genetic.' But some psychologists may argue that there are aspects of personality that could be inherited through epigenetic rather than genetic means. These blurred interactions between genes and environment are yet to be fully elucidated, and it is probably for this reason that the programme overlooked this important aspect of sports science.
'The Olympic Journey: Born Winners' sets out to answer the question: 'Are winners born or made?' and it forms a motivating, albeit not particularly mind-blowing, conclusion: winners are made. While having an innate genetic predisposition may prove advantageous, the only prerequisite of success is having a positive attitude that drives one to practice, develop persistence, and, ultimately, achieve success.
Reviewing this show as a university student, I found this documentary inspiring. It has encouraged me to strive for excellence in whatever field I enter (although this will unlikely involve gymnastics, long jump or anything too strenuous, for that matter!) and, most importantly, it has contributed a unique perspective into a frankly well discussed topic.