None of these athletes would put their success solely down to genetics - indeed the question may be a slight on their eye-watering training regimes. But there appears to be empirical evidence to suggest genetic factors are at play when it comes to athletic prowess. For example, all of the 32 finalists in the last four Olympic men's 100-metre races were of West African descent (1).
The final part of the Progress Educational Trust (PET)'s project 'Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity: Does it Matter Where Your Genes Come From?' featured an evening debate supported by the Wellcome Trust entitled 'Genetic Medalling' on the relationship between genetics, sport and race. Opening the event, Dr Anand Saggar, President of the Medical Genetics Section of the Royal Society of Medicine - which organised the debate in partnership with PET and hosted the event - said two things were clear: some races are different and sport matters.
First up in the batting order was Dr Alun Williams, a sport and exercise geneticist from Manchester Metropolitan University, who presented statistics from twin studies linking genetics and sporting prowess. The heritability of 'athletic status', he said, was approximately 70 percent and the heritability of 'leg strength' was 30 to 60 percent. Clearly, as Dr Williams said, there was some 'measurable influence'.
Professor Dupré, professor of philosophy of science at the University of Exeter, kept any Usain Bolts in the audience in their starting blocks. Every biological characteristic comes from an interaction between genes and environment, he said. We should be wary of attributing athletic prowess wholly to genetics - indeed, we should actively prevent it, especially when looking at racial differences.
Uncertainty about the genetics threatened to score an own goal and nip the debate in the bud, but Connie St Louis from City University steered the debate into the ethical arena. 'Using race as a code for genetics' was the central theme of her talk. She explained how black French football players were described this year by the minister of sport as 'bulky and athletic' while white players 'used their heads'. It was alarming to hear how modern-day racial stereotyping can be given a genetic basis.
Sporting puns aside, this is a serious topic and there were ethical issues to address. Should the science be proved right or wrong - there remains much to be debated. As Dr Saggar said introducing the debate, why do certain countries dominate the Olympics? – 'It's not about funding'.
Three main issues emerged from the ensuing debate. First, given genetic tests are becoming available on the market place, such as the Sports X Factor test produced by US firm AIBioTech (see BioNews 609), is it reasonable to bar athletes from using genetics to maintain their competitive edge? Dr Williams gave examples of how genetic information could be used to change a physical training programme by, for example, focusing upon endurance if tests showed a weakness in that area. Yet such opportunities would mostly benefit those with favourable genes, undermining fairness and openness in competitions. And is it possible to regulate this practice? We can learn from the difficulties tackling doping problems in professional cycling.
Second - and this came from a question posed by PET chair Professor Marcus Pembrey - to what extent can genetic information guide children in their athletic endeavours and what are the dangers of pushing children too far? (pushy parents beware). In reply, Professor Dupré said the overriding concern is not to tell children who are good at sports that they can't do them.
Professor Dupré also said stereotyping could push young black people into specialising in one area, sprinting, for example, and not perhaps realise their academic potential. This was echoed by St Louis who said a crude categorisation into 'IQ (intelligence quotient) vs physical' could result in some children being pushed to excel at sport because they felt they couldn't be academic. It is a confidence issue the black community has taken on board, she said.
This leads on to the third theme - crude science can be manipulated to support implied, inbuilt prejudice. Africa is a continent, not a country, as one delegate from the floor pointed out, and to use a broad-brush approach to classifying individuals by race, and not genome, is misleading and reinforces racial stereotyping.
What is clear is that for every black individual who can run 100 metres in under ten seconds, there is at least one who cannot. Comments from audience members helped bring this point out and one, in particular, stumped the panel - a BioNews volunteer asked if his success could be attributed to either his Caribbean ancestry or growing up in North London? Such points sought to remind the audience that stark generalisations based upon race or any other external observation, and supported by a genetic 'association', are unwelcome. Accuracy in science and language is crucial in this highly-sensitive debate. The problem is the science is not yet accurate enough.
However, I can't help feeling that this is not about race, but elitism that favours the advantaged. Not too dissimilar from private education, genetics in sports, if not used correctly, presents an opportunity for the few to the disadvantage of the many. Resources must still concentrate on both the haves and the have nots.
Yet the taboo needs to be aired and St Louis took this issue to task. There's not necessarily any harm behind making casual observations about other people's positive attributes, but talk of genetics adds gravity to such lightness. And it can be abused.