Subscribe to the BioNews newsletter for free

Login
Advanced Search

Search for
BioNews

Like the Progress Educational Trust on Facebook



 

The making of an Olympic athlete

25 July 2016

By Craig Pickering

Head of Sports Science, DNAFit

Appeared in BioNews 861

When watching the Olympic Games this summer, you are going to see athletes at the top of their game pulling off some incredible performances. As you're watching these athletes create history, part of you may be asking – are these athletes actually human? Fundamentally, you want to know this: if you trained like an Olympic athlete, would you be equally successful, or just one of the number of athletes unable to qualify for the biggest sporting event on Earth?

The truth is quite complex. If athletes are different to the mere mortals watching them on TV, there may be differences in their genes that make them so. We do know that some gene variants are more common in athletes than non-athletes. Perhaps the most well known of these is ACTN3, often called the 'speed gene'. This gene creates a protein that is found in fast-twitch muscle fibres, which release energy for rapid activity. About 18 percent of people lack the ability to produce this protein as they have two copies of the recessive, non-coding allele of ACTN3 – the XX genotype. A multitude of studies has found the XX genotype in anywhere from 0–6 percent of elite speed-power athletes, which is significantly less than the normal population frequency of 18 percent. So it appears that the presence of the dominant, coding 'R' allele of ACTN3 might enhance elite sprint performance. In some populations, the XX genotype is even rarer; in African-Americans and Jamaicans it is present in as little as two percent of the population. Is it a coincidence that all but two athletes who have broken the 10-second barrier over 100m are of African descent?

But if genes do create world-class athletes, we don't know enough about them yet to make predictions. While studies about ACTN3 might appear promising, it's worth pointing out that roughly six billion people on the planet possess the R allele, and very few of them are elite athletes. There still are elite sprint athletes who have the XX genotype – they're just very rare. So while the R allele might be useful for athletes, it isn't essential. Currently, we know of about 120 genes that have at least one study suggesting they influence elite performance. This is insufficient to identify prospective athletes via genetic testing. Even if we take the 23 genes most strongly linked to endurance performance, there is only a 0.0005 percent chance of a single person having the 'best' versions of all of them. In reality, all athletes likely possess a combination of 'favourable' and 'unfavourable' genes related to sporting performance, and the vast majority of these genes are not yet identified.

And even if an athlete were to have the 'perfect' genes, they would still have to train in order to reach their potential. This involves having the right coach, the right training plan, and the right nutrition. It also requires a great deal of luck – staying injury-free, and the performance of your peers. Where you're born also has a significant effect; if you're born into a supportive family and have access to good sporting facilities, your chances of being an elite athlete are higher than if you're born into poverty.

But our genes can also influence how well we respond to training. It's been known since the mid-1990s that some people respond very well to aerobic training while others respond poorly. Different athletes could benefit greatly from different training programmes, even if their goals are the same.

In essence then, the athletes you will see winning gold medals this summer have a combination of favourable genes and favourable environment. The athlete with the 'best' genes won't always win, especially if that athlete doesn't train to the required level. On the other hand, an athlete who has the best training environment possible may be disadvantaged if they don’t possess any favourable genes. We should understand that the successful athletes will be the ones who have best maximised their genetics through the correct application of training, in addition to likely being dealt a better hand in life than many others.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise | 2010
 
The American Journal of Human Genetics | 23 July 2003
 
British Journal of Sports Medicine | 08 February 2007
 
Advanced Clinical Chemistry | 11 April 2015
 
Journal of Applied Physiology | 01 September 1999
 
The Journal of Physiology | 2008
 

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

31 May 2011 - by Dr Jay Stone 
A US company has launched a mail order genetic test that claims to provide 'athletes and parents of young sports competitors' with information about the user's athletic strengths, what type of training will be most beneficial, and potential injury risks...
08 December 2008 - by Adam Fletcher 
A simple genetic screen will help you decide which sport your child is most suited to. That is the claim made by Atlas Sports Genetics (ASG), of Colorado, US, in the launch last week of their new genetic test. Although previously marketed in several other countries, this...
23 December 2004 - by BioNews 
An Australian company is offering a genetic test it claims can identify children who have the potential to excel at either sprinting and 'power' sports or endurance events, the Times reports. The test, available online, is based on research published last year linking variations in the ACTN3 gene to differences...
01 September 2003 - by BioNews 
Whether you are good at sprinting or are better at long-distance running is partly down to which version of a gene called ACTN3 you inherit, Australian scientists reported last week. They found that world class sprinters are more likely to have at least one copy of the 'R' version of...

HAVE YOUR SAY
Be the first to have your say.

You need to or  to add comments.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions


- click here to enquire about using this story.

Published by the Progress Educational Trust

CROSSING FRONTIERS

Public Conference
London
8 December 2017

Speakers include

Professor Azim Surani

Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge

Sally Cheshire

Professor Guido Pennings

Katherine Littler

Professor Allan Pacey

Dr Sue Avery

Professor Richard Anderson

Dr Elizabeth Garner

Dr Andy Greenfield

Dr Anna Smajdor

Dr Henry Malter

Vivienne Parry

Dr Helen O'Neill

Dr César Palacios-González

Philippa Taylor

Fiona Fox

Sarah Norcross

Sandy Starr


BOOK HERE

Good Fundraising Code

Become a Friend of PET HERE and give the Progress Educational Trust a regular donation