The Sports Gene: How Olympians are made (or born)


Erika Coimbra,
Brazilian Summer Olympian,
and one of the subjects of
“The Sports Gene”

The venues at Sochi are still, it seems, a work in progress.  Nevertheless, before the week’s end, we will (should?) see the Winter Olympic games start up.  Soon, we’ll get to watch some of the finest athletes in the world compete at their sport.

There has been a lot of talk about the on-going construction at the most expensive games in Olympic history, as well as the issue of gay rights and cultural sensibilities in Russia;  and there have been worries about the potential for terrorism.  But soon, when the competitions begin, I hope the focus will justifiably be on the athletes on the snow and ice.

Or in Tweet speak: #LetGamesBegin

I’ve not been consciously preparing for this elite sporting event, but rather coincidentally recently picked up a book that highlights elite athletes and has received a great deal of positive ‘buzz’:  The Sports Gene, by David Epstein.

You likely have heard of the book.  It has been receiving excellent reviews and is generating a lot of chatter in print, visual and social media.  On Monday, for instance, The Guardian hosted a live chat online with the author.  Subtitled, “Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance,” the book delves into one of the ‘ultimate’ questions in sport:  nature or nurture, which is more important?  And, specifically, which is more important in the realm of elite sport?

Like many ‘ultimate’ questions, the real answer is not a clean, binary one.  That said, I walk away from reading this book thinking the bulk of the evidence is in favor of nature:  genetic endowments favor the production of elite athletes.

Mr. Epstein opens the book looking at the countervailing argument, the idea in the modern world which has come to be described in shorthand as the “10,000 hour rule.”  This theory derives from work done by K. Anders Ericsson and company, in papers such as “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” and “Toward a Science of Exceptional Achievment.”  It is one of the central phenomena behind the rise of early sport specialization and overuse injuries, discussed in our recent CJSM paper and profiled in our recent blog post. It is the concept that informs ideas such as “Good runners are made not born.”

Get 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in (that’s essentially 20 hours/week, every week, for 10 years) and you are well on your way to being expert, or elite, in your field, sports included. Put that way, if you are an aspiring dancer, gymnast, figure skater, tennis player, and you haven’t started some hard core, purposeful training by the time you’ve started primary school, you are a lost cause.

But Epstein begins to pick away at this concept as he carefully studies examples that seem to show the primacy of nature.  He discusses the variable response individuals can have to the same level and intensity of training, and teases out what is behind ‘high’ and ‘low’ responders.  Much of the work on these concepts comes from the HERITAGE family study.  The work in this study generally demonstrates that there are two global sets of genes operant in many elite athletes:  one set of genes appears to influence the initial, base level of, say, V02 max; and another set of genes influences the response to training.   The examples of Chrissie Wellington and Jim Ryun are given, as athletes who dominated their sport (triathlon and distance running, respectively) and appear to have both a high inherent aerobic capacity and an extraordinary capacity to respond to training.

I suggest Epstein may argue that “Good runners may be made….but elite runners are born, then made even better.”

In the chapter “Why Men Have Nipples,” Epstein describes what a powerful effect sexual differentiation can have on athletic performance, and states, “Insofar as there is an ‘athleticism gene,’ the SRY gene is it.” The SRY (‘sex determining region Y’) gene that turns on, or selectively activates, other genes that push a developing embryo into developing male characteristics:  testes instead of ovaries, Leydig cells that synthesize testosterone and not estrogen, etc.

He then gives several examples of unique ways in which male genetic traits can determine athletic ability. Put another way, it seems some female athletes may owe at least part of their success to the fact that they are more male than their peers. An obvious example he points to is the systemic use of androgen therapy by the East Germans in the 70’s to dominate female sports; Epstein notes that the shot putter Heidi Krieger, who has testified to this use of steroids, has had to reassign her gender after years of androgen therapy:  she is now Andreas Krieger.

The story of Erika Coimbra, the Brazilian volleyball player, is especially intriguing.  Coimbra has an XY genotype, which should result in a male phenotype.  However, she was also born with an associated androgen insensitivity, and so phenotypically she is feminine in appearance but has the long legs and arms that promote throwing and jumping ability.  There is an overrepresentation of such XY women in sport, according to Epstein.

The book has made for great reading, and I think it is serendipitous that I am in the middle of it just as the Olympic games have begun, the table set for some of the finest athletes on the planet.

The subjects of genes and elite sport figure frequently in CJSM.  We have also regularly profiled studies and articles that have featured the Olympic and Paralympic Games in the journal.  This blog, too, has found these games to be a frequent subject:  I wrote about the upcoming Sochi2014 games last summer and Chris Hughes has written about his time as a team physician in the London Olympics.  We’ll be sure to be tweeting from @cjsmonline and blogging as these Games continue this month.  Enjoy!


About sportingjim
I work at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio USA, where I am a specialist in pediatric sports medicine. My academic appointment as an Associate Professor of Pediatrics is through Ohio State University. I am a public health advocate for kids' health and safety. I am also the Deputy Editor for the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.

One Response to The Sports Gene: How Olympians are made (or born)

  1. Pingback: #YouthSportSafety: Early Sports Specialization in Youth Athletes | Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine Blog

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