Genetics role in athletic performance is a long debated subject. Why is it that people of a certain race or genetic background seem to perform better at certain sports than others? There are a number of explanations out there including the nature vs. nurture debate.
To understand this properly lets briefly look at genetics and what they are…
Genetics: What Are They And Do They Matter In Athletic Performance?
Genetics are units made up of a sequence or code of Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA). The ‘genes’ are the fundamental building block of all life, human, plant, insect, reptile, every living organism. Families pass on their genetic coding from one generation to the next and over time certain characteristics of genes are added, subtracted and altered. This is called evolution.
It is evolution that is likely responsible for genetics role in athletic performance. This would point to environment as a major factor, not just in short-term or single lifetime terms, but over many generations, for athletic performance. If you are part of a race or tribe that over many tens of thousands of years has to, out of necessity or need for survival, engage in certain regular behaviours then over time genetics are altered through the process of evolution to more efficiently perform these tasks of necessity. That’s the theory anyway, it makes sense but is not entirely proven.
Genetics are the fundamental code that gives people their eye colour, limb length, height, bodily proportions, reaction time, hair colour, lung capacity, weight distribution and everything else that the body tends to lean towards naturally. So, even with little hard scientific evidence explaining why exactly genetics play a role in athletic performance, there simply has to be a factor. The reason I can confidently say this is because if you look at a family with short, stumpy limbs, heavy upper body, higher body fat and a predisposition to flat feet and compare them to another family lineage with long legs, narrow hips, small upper body and naturally efficient gait, it is almost a guarantee that they will not perform at the same level in the same sports. The former will be much better weight lifters and throwers and the latter will be much more efficient runners. This is inevitable due to efficient structure for different tasks, which is determined genetically.
On the flip side, nurture does play a certain role, it’s not entirely genetically determined and I would never try to claim that it is. If the thin runner-types become heavy smoking couch potatoes and the short, stocky ones lead a healthy lifestyle and run every day then of course the genetically un-gifted runners will perform at a higher level. However the family that is not genetically structured for running will have a lower potential for improvement and future elite performance. Both nurtured equally and the genetically natural runners will almost certainly perform better.
So that’s the magic of genes and the role they play. They are the building blocks of life and will determine how efficient your body naturally is at certain tasks. Like it or not, everyone is genetically more suited to certain sports.
Contrast Of Sports That Are Racially Dominated
Just about every sport seems to be racially dominated to a certain extent. Lets look at genetics role in athletic performance in specific sports…
Long distance running is by far dominated by those of East African descent. Kenyans are particularly dominant in long distance races and hold many of the world records. Not only that, it’s generally Kenyans from the Rift valley, the Kalenjins.
Middle distance races are a little more spread out in terms of records held, however it seems that most consistently races are won by those of Northern African descent. We do quite often see here though that people of Kenyan, Ethiopian and Arabic nations do well in middle distance races.
Sprinting is dominated almost exclusively by West Africans who can trace their lineage back to countries like Senegal, Cameroon, Ghana or other countries in that general vicinity.
Weight lifting, throwing sports, power-lifting and most other strength and power oriented sports are dominated almost exclusively by Caucasians, particularly those of Scandinavian descent.
Those are just a few examples, there are many more but this provides a bit of insight. Genetics role in athletic performance seems to take shape when we look at possible reasons for the dominance of certain sports.
Lets start with long distance running. Kenyans have been shown to have a higher predominance of fast-twitch muscle fibres. Yes, you heard that right, fast-twitch, not slow-twitch. These fibres in Kenyans are not like type IIa and IIb in other people. Kenyans have fast twitch muscle fibres that exhibit much greater oxidative characteristics than fast twitch fibres in other. They also have a much higher lung capacity.
Another aspect contributing to Kenyan dominance in long distance running is biomechanics. Genetics role in athletic performance, in my opinion, seems to pertain a lot to the efficiency with which certain body types perform certain tasks. Since body type is largely genetically determined it can safely be stated that this racial aspect must play a role in the inherent potential ability for Kenyans to run efficiently over long distances.
Contrast the body type of Kenyans with that of Scandinavians. Kenyans are slim, they have narrow hips, small upper bodies, high calves, narrow waists, long legs etc. This combination is perfect for economical biomechanics suited to running. Now look at Scandinavians. Generally they are thick-set, have shorter legs, wider hips, higher body fat levels, larger upper bodies etc. This is of course a perfect combination for strength sports.
Middle distance runners of Northern African descent seem to dominate based on a lot of the same genetically determined characteristics.
North Africans have a higher anaerobic threshold due possibly to faster lactate buffering, lower lactate levels during maximal performance and more efficient utilisation of anaerobic enzymes.
Sprinters of championship calibre seem to always be West African. This includes American, Jamaican and British sprinters. It should be considered no coincidence that they are also naturally (genetically) more mesomorphic in body type with narrow hips, thick and powerful thighs, high calves, predominance of type IIb muscle fibres and their extremely efficient use of energy substrates pertaining to speed and power, such as a very efficient use of ATP and creatine phosphate.
As for weight lifting and other strength/power sports, we have already looked at the great white dominance in terms of biomechanics, but what about other aspects? If whites contained a higher predominance of type IIb muscle fibres then that would mean they should also dominate sprinting and jumping like the West Africans. Does that make sense? Logically it does, however the biomechanics issue comes into play and it all changes. It is this reason that West Africans don’t dominate lifting sports.
Another aspect to consider here is the use of energy substrates specific to extreme levels of effort over extremely short periods of time such as in a clean and jerk or a snatch in weight lifting. Also, whites tend to have muscle structures that are not favourably built for rapid contraction when it needs to be repetitive like powering down the 100 metre track. This is most likely due to the direction the fibres run. Muscle fibres run in various directions, the straighter they run towards the tendon, the faster they will contract. Muscle fibres that run at an angle to the tendon are generally capable of greater overall force but not speed of contraction. This helps to explain why Caucasians are better lifters but not so great sprinters and vice versa for the West Africans. This mainly pertains to long muscles like those in the thigh. Caucasians have dominant fast twitch muscle fibres that are arranged in a manner that supports great force production but not greater velocity of contraction.
Genetics, Environment or Training?
On one side you have hardcore geneticists arguing that genetics are the be-all-and-end-all to athletic performance and ignoring other factors. Then there are those that ignore genetics role in athletic performance due to political correctness or other such moral issues. They are both missing something. Whatever someone looks for and expects to find while searching for evidence they are likely to find more of it due to focus of attention and unconscious favouring over one set of facts.
Genetics play a large role in the potential of human beings to achieve peak levels of performance in certain areas. It’s unlikely that someone with short arms, small lung capacity and heavy upper body would ever be a champion swimmer, although training might make them pretty good, but they are unlikely to beat those with more favourable genetics. Also, the short, heavy person would have a much higher strength potential for sports like weight lifting than a slender, tall champion swimmer.
Holding genetics accountable for all performance is an arrogant point of view and is incorrect. Take an average Kenyan off the street who has never ran more than a few miles a week and put him in a race with an elite Finnish marathon runner who has trained all his life at the highest levels. Most certainly the result will be in favour of the Finnish champion, not the un-trained Kenyan.
There is also training and culture to consider. This is environmental in nature and there are many more variables. In East African cultures many people have to use bipedal locomotion (running and walking) to get places more than what people in other parts of the world require. They also live at altitude and are not contaminated with bad food, smoking and drinking to the extent that other parts of the world are. Of course you then have to consider Kenyan champions that were born in other parts of the world. This can be explained by evolution within the above-mentioned environment. Of course, much of this is speculation based on a combination of both peer reviewed and anecdotal evidence. Having said that, it is not blind speculation. This sort of analysis supports a most likely explanation.
Everyone wants to study the genetics role in athletic performance in Kenyans rather than their training habits. It makes no sense when Kenyans are a dominating force in the long-distance running world. When you take a closer look it turns out that East Africans have an entirely different training approach to most of the rest of the world. The Kenyans train faster, they utilise high intensity intervals, more sprint training, lower volume and lengthy recovery periods after a period of hard training.
The East Africans are also fanatical about the sports in which they dominate, which results in the increased drive and motivation to train hard and compete strong.
Genetics role in athletic performance plays a part but it’s not everything and does not mean that every couch potato who is genetically predisposed to a certain sport will necessarily dominate that sport with little training or a lazier approach.
Human Athletic Potential: Something To Think About
Human athletic potential is something that would take a lifetime to fully understand and explain. There has not been a scientist or coach yet that has been able to uncover the full athletic potential of human beings. There are so many factors to consider and genetics role in athletic performance is only one of them.
So many people look for the cause of things, that one difference that makes the difference. This is a frustrating pursuit and is never resolved. The reason I can give for that is that there is more than one thing that makes up an entire puzzle. Generally when you find outstanding performance you will also find evidence of a complete profile of factors that are favourable and align to the ultimate result.
I’ll leave you with a thought to consider…
Genetics somewhat play a role, a rather big one, in the ultimate potential of a person to perform at a certain level. So too does environment, nutrition etc. But what most people tend to overlook is thoughts and beliefs. How many Caucasians do you think there are that truly believe they can win the 100 metres in the Olympic games? Why is that? It’s due to beliefs. If West Africans have been winning this race for a long time then the automatic thought process for other nationalities is that it’s dominated by that race and your own potential is limited.
If you look for certain results and expect to find them it is likely you will. So although genetics role in athletic performance makes sense and can be somewhat backed up by evidence, it’s not everything and even someone without 100 percent desirable genes may become a champion or at least perform well.
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Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Unleashed Training, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.